A small collection of small treasures.
Seen in Ocean City,
Black Friday dawns at Cape Henlopen State Park. Nearby, shoppers are crowding the Delaware outlet stores, looking for bargains. Away from the maddening crowd, there is only the cry of gulls and the crash of the waves for company. Ah, sweet sandy serenity!
Cape Henlopen panorama. At the far left is the Breakwater Lighthouse, which sits on the inner breakwater. The cylindrical building at the center is a WWII fire control tower. The spit of sand behind the tower is Cape Henlopen Point. Beyond that is the Harbor of Refuge Breakwater, with the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse at its right end. Photographed from the Cape Henlopen Fire Control Tower.
What is the well-dressed mermaid is wearing this season? A mermaid’s necklace, of course! A mermaid’s necklace is chain of egg cases laid by a whelk, a predatory sea snail. Each egg case can contain up to 99 eggs, and there can be more than 150 cases in a chain. That’s a lot of baby whelks.
Even a mermaid needs a handbag – it’s not like she’s got pockets! So she carries a mermaid’s purse. This is an egg case of a skate. Similar in appearance to rays, skates are cartilaginous fish whose skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone. Egg cases of most skate species contain a single embryo.
Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River, viewed from the river. Or rather, from the extensive mudflats where the river used to be. Usually there’s water here, edged by a narrow beach. This was an extreme low tide. Great for exploring, finding treasure, and getting into mischief.
Robb had a little adventure…
Long gone are the warm days of summer, days when families crowded the beach with their beach blankets and umbrellas, their sand pails and horseshoe sets. The only creatures frolicking in the surf are ducks. The stiff ocean breeze, so welcome when the temperature was 80°, is a torment at 35°. Autumn lingers, but teeters on the edge of winter. The beach is empty.
Of humans, but not of wonders.
At last, the beach is ours!
From late fall to mid-spring, the Jersey Shore is ours to explore, empty of crowds and noise. Now there are plenty of treasures to collect, shells and rocks and sea glass, safe from the many feet and the mechanical beach-sweepers of summer.
As we walked along the beach at Holgate one November day, we kept seeing these odd tree sculptures. For a bit, we thought some enterprising soul had placed driftwood on end as an artistic expression. Then we realized that these were the broken stumps of dead trees, and we were walking amidst what once had been wooded dunes.
The dunes at Holgate, looking west toward Barnegat Bay. The southern tip of Long Beach Island is a part of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. It didn’t always look like this. Only a few years ago, it was a thicket of dune plants and shrubs. Then Superstorm Sandy paid a visit, inundating the entire area, breeching the island from bay to ocean in places. These weathered roots, trunks and branches are what are left of once vital vegetation. Devastated, but starkly beautiful.
FUN FACT: These plants were flooded with water, but died of thirst. Why? Fresh water flows easily into a plant through the tissues of the roots, a process called osmosis. But this was a saltwater inundation. Ever have a salt shaker gum up in humid weather? Salt absorbs water very easily, pulling water from the plants into the soil and leading to dehydration. It also interferes with the chemical processes by which a plant obtains nutrients. The combination of nutrient and water deficiencies has laid waste to the dune plants.
Even on the edge of winter, wonders abound at the wild edge.
The beauty of the natural world lies in the details.
– Natalie Angier
It’s a big world out there, and sometimes overwhelming. Serenity can be found in tiny treasures. Spend time looking closely at the form of a flower, the lacy veins of a leaf, the tiny grains of sand, and feel the wider world melting away.
Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional.
– Liz Vassey
Regular readers of the Wild Edge may notice that I am drawn to small subjects: dragonflies, snails, lizards, flowers, seeds. While I enjoy landscape photography, it usually isn’t long before I’m isolating part of a scene, or zooming in close on some little detail.
So it was inevitable; I recently purchased a macro lens. For the uninitiated, macro lenses take extreme close-up photos, often of very small subjects. I took it for a walk along the bay beach at Corson’s Inlet State Park, at the southern tip of Ocean City.
Now I will readily admit I violated the First Law of Macro Photography: I didn’t use a tripod. This was just a trial run, and I didn’t expect anything of the session. To my surprise, a few photos seemed worthy of sharing here. If only to inspire you with the beauty to be found if you take a really close look at the small details of Nature around you.
Notice not just the flowers, but the wasp. Not just the wasp, but the grains of pollen on the wasp. Pollen hitching a ride on flying insects is one way plants reproduce.
Details create the big picture.
– Sanford I. Weill
To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.
– William Blake
Sand and shell on an autumn leaf. The lacy veins carry vital materials in and out of the leaf, including chlorophyll, a green pigment critical to the energy production of photosynthesis. When chlorophyll production ceases in fall, the green fades away and the red and yellow pigments already present in the leaf are revealed.
I still get wildly enthusiastic about little things… I play with leaves. I skip down the street and run against the wind.
– Leo Buscaglia
In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.
Have you ever noticed something for the first time, and after that you see it everywhere? For me, this was the summer of the Fiddler Crab. Why I’d never noticed them before escapes me, but after my first encounter with a few at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, I saw them just about everywhere I went. Usually in large numbers!
Fiddler crabs are small crabs that live in salt-water and brackish water marshes, beaches and mudflats. They are colonial and social critters that are active during the day.
The male crabs are particularly odd-looking because one of their front claws is grossly enlarged. It’s used to court females and engage in ritualized combat with other males. In tai chi, we have a move that looks just like this!
FUN FACT: Fiddler crabs molt their shells as they grow. If a male loses his large claw, he will grow a new one during the next molt, on the opposite side of his body. The movements of his small claw against the large one resemble someone playing a fiddle, hence the name.
Fiddlers eat by scooping up mud or sand (left), removing algae and other organic material, and then returning the mud in the form of a pellet (right). Females like this one rapidly alternate between both claws as they feed. A male crab’s large claw is useless to eat with, so he has to eat one-handed.
Here is a fiddler crab near her burrow, with sand pellets to the side. They dig their burrows one pellet at a time, carrying it under their body as much as five feet away before returning to fetch another pellet. These burrows can be as deep as two feet! That’s a lot of work for an inch long crab.
The marsh bank below this Semipalmated Sandpiper is riddled with crab holes. The burrows are important shelters from not only predators, but the daily ebb and flow of the tides. Fiddler crabs have biological clocks synchronized to the tides, and retreat to the burrows when high tide approaches, plugging the entrance with mud.
The smaller crab here approached this larger female very tentatively, and then tried to scurry past her. Only to have the large female scurry right alongside. They moved in parallel like that for quite some way. Was this a territorial dispute? Is the small crab a juvenile? Some of life’s little mysteries we’ll never solve!
It’s a big world out there for a little crab. They have a lot of predators. Threats can come from larger crabs like the marsh crab, diamondback terrapins, and even mink and raccoons. Then there are the dangerous birds, like Great and Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, terns, and gulls.
Here’s a different sort of crab – a flat-clawed hermit crab. Hermit crabs are soft-bodied, and must find someone else’s shell to live in, typically abandoned sea snail shells. I collect a type of moon shell known as a shark’s eye. Usually they’re empty, but I was delighted to find someone at home in this one! I couldn’t coax him out to play, though. Hermits are usually nocturnal, so probably he’d have rather been napping. (It makes me cringe to admit it, but these are cell phone photos. It was all I had with me at the time.)
FUN FACT: Hermit crabs need to replace their shells as they outgrow them. Crabs like to shop for new shells, trying various ones on for size. Sometimes this leads to fights, or a number of crabs ganging up on one whose home they covet. Sometimes they form a “vacancy chain”. A new shell in the neighborhood will draw a crowd of hermit crabs. The largest crab in the group will move into it, leaving his shell behind. That will be taken by the next largest crab, leaving his shell to the third largest, and so on down the line!
Coming up: Looking for Fall
Wondering what the roads are like on your way to work today? Critter Radio, KRTR 99.9 FM, presents the Critter Traxx Traffic report, sponsored by Critter Traxx Granola. Let’s go to Darryl Dragonfly, our Eye in the Sky. Daryl, what are you seeing on our highways and byways today?
Well, folks, it’s a typical rush hour here in southern New Jersey, not a lot of volume, but traffic is crawling. Up north at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, many of the thoroughfares are actually waterways. Diamondback terrapins are the ultimate sport utility, built for land or water, but not speed. Slow and steady wins the race.
FUN FACT: Grasshoppers hear with their tummies! They have a simple auditory organ, called a tympanum, on each side of their abdomens. They’re much better at detecting rhythm than pitch. They also “sing”, by either rubbing their legs against their wings (stridulation) or snapping their wings while they fly (crepitation).
Back on land, right of way issues have some coquina shells at a complete standstill. Don’t you just hate those four-way stops? Nobody ever wants to cross the intersection first. “After you.” “Please, you first.” “No, I insist.”
At Cape May Point State Park there was a massive duckweed spill moments ago. A green frog looks like he’s wearing most of it! He’s been forced to pull off on the shoulder of the eastbound Creek Expressway. A trip through the frog wash may be in order.
Maybe we should all take a page from her book and call it a day. This is Darryl Dragonfly, your Eye in the Sky, with the Critter Traxx Traffic report on Critter Radio, KRTR 99.9 FM. Remember, be nice to your fellow travelers.
CONSERVATION PIECE: The northern diamondback terrapin is the only turtle out of 300 species to live in brackish waters like those found in the coastal salt marshes, above. The terrapins are at the top of the food web and play an important role in keeping the populations of their prey from growing out of hand. Diamondbacks are themselves in a lot of trouble in New Jersey, however. They have lost a lot of the salt marsh habitat in which they live and the barrier island sand dune habitat in which they nest. They drown in commercial crab traps. Human car traffic kills an average of more than 500 gravid (egg-laden) female terrapins each year in Cape May and Atlantic Counties alone. Thankfully, dedicated people are fighting to protect the turtles, by building barrier fences, helping turtles cross roads safely, rescuing injured turtles, and even retrieving eggs to incubate them and rear the young turtles. For more information on this effort: http://wetlandsinstitute.org/conservation/
Coming up: Crab Dance