We are in the midst of a drought and there is nothing worse for those early leavers and early bloomers who bet on a premature spring, but not on the dry weather. In 1986 during an extended dry period a wildfire caught hold of Hither Woods in Montauk and burned more than half of it. In 1995 the Westhampton Pine Barrens exploded from too little precipitation and now in 2012 a warm, dry winter and drier, warmer spring has sparked another major forest fire, north and east of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton.
So it was with some foreboding that the four of us, Joanne and Michael Pateman, Vicki Bustamante, and I, entered the 172 acres of the Culloden Point Nature Preserve on Saturday, wondering if all the wetlands had turned to desert wadis, and the trees and wildflowers had been nipped in the bud. We were pleasantly surprised. Culloden was just as grand as in previous springs, maybe even a little grander. The vernal ponds contained water, the stream to Block Island Sound was still running, and the trees and wildflowers were way ahead of schedule.
Two hundred and thirty years ago, after the British frigate Culloden ran aground, the sailors left the floundering ship and made their way up the steep bluff face to the top with the help of a breeches buoy. One hundred and seventy-three years ago, the Amistad and its 400 mutinous African slaves were rescued in the vicinity by the U.S. brig Washington. One hundred years ago, Culloden Point was grazing land and there was just one shack to reflect its residential status. The only trees were those such as the tupelos, which grew at the edges of the wetlands. Prairie grasses — little bluestem, big bluestem, and Indian nutgrass — dominated the landscape and, I imagine, there were a goodly number of rare flowers scattered among them, such as the sandplain gerardia, Agalinis acuta, and the New York State rare bushy frostweed, two species that defined the early days of Montauk.
There are several trails, two of which loop down to the seashore, one on the east side, one on the west side. They wind through mature hardwoods most of the way, three species of hickories, four species of oaks, two different shads, black cherry, American beech, sassafras, American holly, red maple, cockspur hawthorn, and several more, but not a single dogwood. The shadblows were beginning to bloom white, which they do when the shad run up the Hudson River to spawn. The red maples were filled with blossoms as red as could be.
We could find only a single conifer among the broad-leafed trees, a scrunchy red cedar about as tall as we were and half-green, half-brown. Montauk has very few native conifers. Austrian pines and Japanese black pines were widely planted. There are two tall larches on a lawn next to the Montauk Manor, and only a few native red cedars and pitch pines. The pitch pines, the mainstay of Long Island’s Central Pine Barrens, had a tough time getting across the Napeague isthmus. They are only plentiful at Montauk’s western edge, just east of the Walking Dunes in Hither Woods.
The birds were out and singing Saturday afternoon. Vicki had her ears and binoculars at the ready, even though we were more interested in the flora than the fauna, she picked them out one by one, either by their calls, their plumage, their behavior, or their flight pattern — palm warbler, yellow warbler, tufted titmouse, cardinal, chickadee, crow, blue jay, white-throated sparrow, red-tailed hawk, turkey, and three species of woodpecker, red-bellied, flicker, and yellow-bellied sapsucker, the rarest of the lot.
As we approached the beach on a downhill leg of the east trail, the trail edges were carpeted with a variety of blooming wild flowers, including wood anemones, wild strawberries, and cinquefoil. A few ferns were popping up with fiddleheads, Pennsylvania sedge was flowering, skunk cabbage had already flowered and its leaves were lush and almost as big as elephant ears.
Joanne Pateman was researching edible wild plants and the fruits they produce and we found a plethora of them, but all fruitless at this early stage in the growing season. Many of the edible ones were invasive such as the wineberry from Asia, garlic mustard from Europe, Japanese barberry, and wild garlic, but most were native — black cherry, huckleberry, lowbush blueberry, highbush blueberry, skunk cabbage, cat-tail, and several nut producers, hickories, beeches, and oaks. The Native Americans preferred the acorns of white oaks to those of black and scarlet oaks. Shagbark hickory nuts were also chosen over those from the other two hickories. Perhaps that is why we could find only one shagbark hickory tree but lots and lots of the others.
While walking in Culloden from March to November, one has to be on guard. It is one of the tickiest places on Long Island. All three species that bite us and give us diseases are resident here. I took a towel along with me to swipe some of the grasses along the main trail emanating from Flamingo Avenue. Thirty seconds of contact with the grassy edge produced more than 10 ticks. Lone star ticks, the newest kids on the block, with each mature female sporting a bright white spot on her back, outnumbered the deer (or black-legged) ticks three to one. So early in the season, there were only a few spots along the trails with tall grasses, leftovers from last year, so our walk was mostly tickless.
The 172 acres of town-owned land in the nature preserve were given to East Hampton as part of the Culloden Point subdivision, which was finalized by the East Hampton Town Planning Board in the early 1990s. It was a beautiful afternoon and a beautiful walk, except for one jarring insult, as obvious as the nose on one’s face. About a third of the nature preserve has been destroyed by dirt bikes and A.T.V.s. These off-road vehicular activities produced many deeply rutted trails — not part of the trail system that the East Hampton Trails Society and East Hampton Natural Resources Department worked out cooperatively. These new trails and their gullies and moguls have exposed the roots of trees and destroyed the groundcover in many spots.
Otherwise, Culloden is doing well.