Finding Montauk’s Sea Creatures

by Evelyn J. Mocbeichel

Evelyn J. Mocbeichel

Visitors to the East End know about its number one attraction, the Montauk Point Lighthouse, but they may not know about the varied and fascinating wildlife, plants and sea life both on and off land. After you have toured the Lighthouse Museum, climbed to the tower, visited the gift shop, take time to explore the grounds, paths and beaches surrounding this historic place.

Starting right in the upper doorway of the Lighthouse Museum entrance you may catch a barn swallow nesting. It is rare to catch a glimpse of this bird as the barn swallow normally is shy and avoids populated areas. It would most likely swoop down, discouraging people from being too close to its nest. Apparently, now use to hundreds of visitors each day going in and out of the museum, this particular bird sits calmly on its elevated nest. Walking down the hill onto a narrow dirt path, boarded by beach grass, shrubs and brush, make sure to stay on the path and not venture to grassy areas to avoid ticks. There are different varieties of ticks such as the dog tick, deer tick and lone star tick, which could be infected with Lyme disease. It always amazes me when I see vacationing cyclists resting on the side of the road, sitting on the grass tall grass sipping a water bottle, unaware of ticks that could crawl onto their skin.

Continuing down the path, there is a fork in the road, where the sand is denser and animal foot prints are easy to discern. Memories of old television westerns come to mind when trackers would dismount their horse to follow the prints of an animal there were hunting. The area around the Lighthouse and rural parts of the East End are populated with a host of wildlife. Most of them are nocturnal and not often seen by beach goers enjoying the sun and surf 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. At Montauk Point 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”, to explain in a simplified fashion.

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 tracks are larger, with an adult about three inches and a fawn much smaller. Is a deer running or walking? Which direction was it going? If you see a wide gap in the center of the sandy foot print, this gap shows it was running. A narrow gap would be a deer walking. Taking a nature walk around the Montauk Lighthouse can also feel like a member of a Lewis and Clark expedition making new discoveries! Continuing along the sandy trail, you’ll start to notice various vegetation. There are wild grapes, whose vines twist and wrapped around any brush or small trees in its path. Beach plum bushes, with their tiny lavender blossoms lead the way to a small look out mound, perfect for a “photo opportunity”. Fishing boats are off the coast, bobbing in the distance, and gulls could be seen swooping and diving into the water feeding on tiny off shore fish that swim in shallow water. In early spring, seals come to the area and can be seen sunning on exposed rocks when the tide is low. Coming off the small hill, you will walk until 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, especially since there are several popular television productions featuring this same topic of finding buried treasure in different parts of the country and around the globe.

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 pads, fish or herons or egrets live here. With no fish to eat, the birds don’t come to the pond. This problem is one that arises from introducing plants to an area they don’t grow in naturally.

Leaving the pond, walk closer to the shore line, especially when the tide is low, to expose moss and seaweed covered rocks, with mussels attached to them. Blue mussels, the kind attached to rocks and are easier to sight when low tide. Mussels are pretty low on the food chain and survive by eating plankton that floats by. In turn, mussels are eaten by raccoons that come down to the beach at night. Mussels are a popular food choice for a variety of creatures. 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. Another amazing technique to dine on mussels is what starfish do. The starfish wraps 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. Clams can be found in Montauk, but in more sandy beaches, buried below the surface. Oysters also 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.

Besides other forms of entertainment while visiting Montauk like swimming, fishing, boating, golfing, take time to comb the beaches and learn more about the beach creatures that share the environment with us. A whole new world of knowledge will open up before you as will an enhanced respect for nature and the beautiful ocean environment we treasure.