by Evelyn J. Mocbeichel
Nature is all around us and it is never as close as when you visit a beach or shore area. Walk along the beach and you will see signs of sea life and remnants washed ashore, each with a story to unfold. Learning about our beautiful world is ongoing and even adults can find something new they didn’t know about. Do you remember being a child and the excitement of finding a perfectly formed seashell or the sun-dried remains of a crab? I remember trying to find beach glass, dazzling bits of smooth, colored glass along the water’s edge. What is beach or sea glass as some call it? It is simply broken pieces of bottles that were tossed on shore or into the sea that became smooth because of currents and waves. It is nature’s rock tumbler that takes 10-20 years to make these sea gems.
When visiting Montauk, be sure to see Long Island’s number one attraction, the Montauk Point Lighthouse. The Montauk Historical Society’s Lighthouse Museum’s admission price includes touring the building’s insides and being able to walk the exterior grounds. We started our walk on the north side of the Lighthouse, down a well-worn path to observe wildlife signs, plants and signs of beach creatures that inhabit this area. (Avoid walking into brush on any hikes to avoid contact with ticks possibly infected with Lyme disease.) We learned from a guided nature walk years ago that the area around the Lighthouse and rural parts of the East End are populated with a host of wildlife. Most are nocturnal and not often seen by beach goers during the day. However, these “beach creatures” leave their mark behind and knowing what their footprints look like can tell a sharp eyed naturalist what animals live in the area. There are deer, raccoon, fox, rabbit and non-poisonous snakes. Sometimes a strong odor would have you believe there is a skunk in the area. Actually, it is a fox urinating and “marking its territory”. It’s a male-to-male notice, “this is my girlfriend, stay away”. Footprints or tracks for each animal differ. A fox walks in a straight line, one foot after the other. A dog’s foot prints wander, one here and one there. Deer track are larger, with an adult about three inches and a fawn much smaller. If deer footprints are further apart, with wide gaps on a sandy trail, then the deer is running. A “narrow” gap would be signs a deer is walking. When observing signs of animal prints reminds me of television westerns where a guide dismounts his horse for a closer look of a track, then signals his party in what direction to continue. From these trails near the Lighthouse, fishing boats can often be seen bobbing in the distance with gulls swooping and diving into the water feeding on tiny off shore fish that swim in shallow water. Coming off a small hill, walk until you round a small bend in the road that leads directly to “Money Pond”. Legend has this name derived from the adventures of Captain Kidd. Back in 1699 he landed at Montauk and it’s believed he buried his treasure in this area. Yet to be found, it makes fascinating trivia for history buffs and visitors to the Point. Money Pond is filled with tall reeds which are not native to this area. Probably from Africa or Eurasia, the reeds had taken over the pond and thrown off the balance of nature. The plants and animals that used to live in the pond were crowded out by the reed’s extensive overgrowth. Now no lily pods, fish or herons and egrets live here. With no fish to eat, the birds don’t come to the pond. And this problem is one that arises from introducing plants to an area they don’t naturally grow in.
On the sandy trail, we passed wild grapes, beach plum bushes, the fruit of which can be made into a jam. The tide was low so we walked closer to the shore line near seaweed covered rocks. Clams can be found in more sandy beaches, buried in the sand, while oysters like rocks, but not water that is too salty. They like “brackish water”, which is a combination of fresh and salty water. Oyster Pond, further in island, is the perfect home for oysters because it is salt water, but fed by many fresh water streams. Blue mussels, for instance, attach to rocks and are easier to sight now that the tide was low. Mussels are a popular food choice of raccoons that come down to the beach at night. Even the moon snail has a unique way of dining on a mussel. The snail gets on top of a mussel shell, then secretes an acid to soften the shell. Once softened, the snail “drills” a tiny hole in the mussel shell to extract its insides. A starfish will wrap its five “legs” around the mussel, attaching to it with the tiny suction cups beneath its legs. With an open mouth, the starfish can send its stomach directly into the crevice of the mussel shell, thereby digesting it while it is still in its shell! The ways of nature are sometimes more bizarre and unbelievable than any science fiction story created by imaginative writers. The next time you are taking a stroll along the shoreline, enjoying the sunshine, fresh air and gentle sea breezes think of all the nature and creatures that share the environment with us.