Nature Notes: The More Things Change

Notwithstanding the ever-looming presence of phragmites, the salt marshes, both tidal and supratidal, have done well this year

    Another week without ticks, while the tree crickets are still filling the night with their monotonic stridulations. Blowfish are back after a relatively long hiatus (I know why, but I won’t tell), but the winter flounder are still but a few. Scallops are scarce, slipper shells are having a banner year. The hickory nuts are dropping like flies. The acorn crop isn’t half bad, at least on the shoulders of the South Fork moraine. The scarlet, black, and white oak acorns that are now falling on our roofs were two years in the making. The chestnut oak acorns only take a year to mature. Pitch pinecones are waiting for a fire to unleash their seeds, while the Northwest white pinecones shed the seed without any help. Myriad things are coming and going and that’s the way fall should start out.

    Notwithstanding the ever-looming presence of phragmites, the salt marshes, both tidal and supratidal, have done well this year. There is a hearty crop of salt-marsh hay, but no cows to eat it as there were in the 18th and 19th centuries. The deer have taken up the vacuum left by the livestock. Their 10-inch wide trails weave here and there across the marsh, where the deer find ample forage and, simultaneously, freedom from ticks. Below, seaward of the intertidal zone, eelgrass beds continue to wane. The one in the East Hampton Town Trustee sanctuary along the east side of Napeague Harbor is hanging on for dear life, trying to make it to the next opening of the east channel.

    There is some kind of mysterious relationship between phragmites stands and eelgrass beds. All of those South Fork harbors and tidal creeks that have very large stands of phragmites along their edges have almost no eelgrass. Lake Montauk’s eelgrass beds are largely depleted. Northwest Creek has an absolutely bare bottom, while Accabonac Harbor and Three Mile Harbor are nearly grassless. The former was just dredged, the latter, three years ago. After the Shinnecock inlet’s last dredging, eelgrass flourished. We’ll soon see if letting more water in and out with each tidal cycle will stimulate the return of eelgrass in Bonac Creek and Three Mile Harbor.

    About six years ago, Three Mile Harbor’s very large longstanding bed of eelgrass on the west side of the Hand’s Creek Road end and the Duke estate vanished as if overnight. No one has yet explained the die-off. It happened in the water ski area and where docks and their pilings are removed and reinstalled by barges in mid-fall and mid-spring. The churning of the water ski boat props and jetting of pilings in and out every year kicks up a lot of silt and other obnoxious materials, not to mention the bottom scraping by the barges. This is obviously not good for eelgrass plants, the roots of which extend into the bottom sediments only a few inches.

    Disturbing the bottom in these ways is not only anathema for eelgrass, but bad for a lot of other marine plants and animals as well. Eelgrass is the most valuable bottom habitat along the entire Atlantic Coast, and it should be tended to in the same manner that Mary Mary, quite contrary, assiduously tended to her garden.

    After the hordes retreat to their urban abodes at the end of each summer, it is a time for quieting down, a little meditation, and thoughts of the future, especially of the coming spring and planting seeds for the next summer and fall harvest. Instead of the willy-nilly approach to harbor maintenance and tidal creek cleaning, why not do as the farmers do? They let the good soil rest during the winter, while preparing for the next season of growth. Regular maintenance is the answer to a lot of our problems both on land and in the water. The late Norman Edwards, an East Hampton Town trustee, was a champion of such dedicated care. Too bad past administrations let a man of such wisdom and forethought down. Now he is gone but the valuable lessons he left us with are still relevant.

    Yes, the hordes are gone, now is the time to get with it!