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West Meadow Beach

Two fiddler crabs battle it out at West Meadow Beach last year. Photo by Jay Gao

By John L. Turner

If you visit just about any salt marsh fringing Long Island’s interdigitated coastline, you’ll experience the fiddlers — they simply can’t be avoided. And while you won’t hear fiddle music, despite the fact there are many hundreds if not thousands of fiddler’s ceaselessly “rosining up their bows,” you will certainly be entertained and amused by male fiddler crabs waving their unusually large claws back and forth like a convention of fiddle players at a folk music festival.  

This prominent and highly distinctive abnormally large claw possessed by the male fiddler crab, which can weigh half as much as the rest of its body, isn’t used as a defense against predators. Rather, it’s used in combat with rival males and for attracting a mate; male crabs possessing larger claws generally having more success (yes, for this species size appears to matter!).  

A male fiddler crab. Photo by Jay Gao

As a female crab walks by a courting male, he vigorously waves the claw back and forth in an attempt to interest her in mating (this behavior also explains their other name — the calling crab). If his display proves successful, she follows him back to his burrow to take a closer look. If she accepts him, the male grabs material to seal the burrow and within it mates with her. He will later emerge, resealing the burrow within which she is incubating the eggs. In a week or two she’ll emerge to release her eggs, generally timing release to coincide with a high tide. They hatch and the larvae float in the water column before eventually settling out; this dispersal helps to maintain genetic diversity among crab populations.   

Three species of fiddler crabs inhabit Long Island’s coastal environments: the mud fiddler (Minuca pugnax) appears to be the most common, followed by the sand fiddler (Leptuca pugilator) with the red-jointed or brackish-water fiddler (Minuca minax) being the least common. They segregate habitat as their names suggest — mud fiddlers found in the mud-rich, organic areas of salt marshes, sand fiddlers utilizing sandy areas, and the red-jointed fiddlers occurring in areas where waters are more brackish, containing lower salt content. They can be a bit of a challenge to identify but with some practice it can be done. 

Worldwide, 105 species of fiddler crabs are currently recognized. They are found along the coastlines of every continent, thus having a global distribution, specifically occurring along the coastlines of southern Asia, Africa (especially the east coast), northern Australia, both coasts of Central America, South America and the southern half of North America. They are distributed within a band of about 40 degrees north and south of the equator; our fiddler populations are among the farthest from the equator, being able to occur this far north due to the provisioning warmth of the Gulf Stream current. The colder waters bathing the coast of Europe preclude their presence there. 

Fiddler crabs at Flax Pond. Photo by John Turner

One of my favorite places to observe fiddler crabs in the Three Village area is Flax Pond, the wonderful natural area owned by New York State (hence you!) located in Old Field, in the northwestern corner of Brookhaven Town. A newly reconstructed boardwalk bisects the marsh, passing over a tidal marsh and stream. About 100 yards north of its beginning the boardwalk offers an ideal vantage point to view these intertidal crabs feeding below in the salt marsh, the boardwalk itself effectively serving as a blind.  

If you time the tides right (low tide or falling tide is best), many hundreds of fiddlers will dot the marsh surface — many courting, waving their big claw to and fro while many more take advantage of the exposed mud to feed. If you stroll along one edge of the boardwalk where the crabs can see you, the marsh will appear in motion from the action of countless crabs moving away from you. Other local productive sites include West Meadow Creek and Stony Brook Harbor.  

The fiddler’s burrow, as much as 2 feet long, is critical to a crab’s survival. Here it finds protection from predators and shelter from the high tides which twice daily inundate the burrow (they’re safe in their plugged, air-filled chamber). Even if water enters, they can survive since fiddler crabs have both gills allowing them to breathe in water and a primitive lung which allows them to breathe when feeding in the air on the marsh surface. Studies document their burrow is the “hub of the wheel” from which they never move too far. 

One study, by an Australian researcher, documented that crabs tend to orient themselves to their burrow, not by facing it or having their back to it, but rather sideways with one half of their set of four legs facing the burrow in the event they have to rapidly scurry sideways to gain protection from a predator.   

If you pay closer attention to the crabs’ enlarged claws, you’ll notice that they’re about evenly split between left-handed and right-handed individuals, with some populations having slightly more of one or the other. If the large claw is lost to a predator or in battle, the smaller claw enlarges to become the “fiddler” claw while the regenerated claw remains small, becoming the feeding claw.     

Watching crabs feed is fun; the females with two normal size claws feed more efficiently than do the males who can utilize but one claw, since the larger one is useless as a feeding tool. Recently, I watched several females feeding and they brought food to their mouths about once a second for minutes on end. Fiddlers feed on decaying vegetation, bacteria, algae and other organic matter found in the sand or mud, efficiently sifting out with their mouthparts the sand particles which they cast aside in the form of little balls or pellets.     

A Yellow-crowned Night Heron snacks on a fiddler crab. Photo by Luke Ormand

Their distinctive stalked eyes provide an alien, other-world look to the species. They have compound eyes, like dragonflies, with up to 9,000 eye facets that can see into the ultraviolet range of the light spectrum! Being on stalks allows them to have slightly elevated, panoramic vision of the marsh around them, a good thing since they face numerous predators that frequent tidal wetlands. The visual sensors on top of their eyes enable them to see motion from overhead, a key adaptation since they are subject to predation by birds. 

Speaking of birds, several species routinely eat fiddlers. American bittern and clapper rails feed on them as do a variety of wading birds such as white and glossy ibis and American egret; yellow-crowned night herons, whose diet is largely restricted to crabs, especially focus on fiddler crabs. Diamondback terrapins eat them as do river otters. 

 Being a key part of the estuarine or coastal food chain is one of the important ecological benefits fiddlers provide; they also play a key role in recycling marsh nutrients through their feeding activities. Their burrows, which collectively can number in the many thousands in a large marsh, help to oxygenate the soil, helping marsh plants to grow such as cordgrass and salt hay. Their presence is also a “bio-indicator” — a general indication of a salt marsh’s high ecological health, generally occurring in tidal wetlands free of pollution and contamination.

Why not make their acquaintance before they retreat deeply into muddy burrows for their long winter slumber?

A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.

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Artifacts gathered at the Fischetti Site along West Meadow Creek. Photo from Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Long Island, Brookhaven Town and the Three Village area have a rich history, with a population dating back thousands of years before the first white settlers. The first humans to set foot on Long Island were of the Paleo-Indian and Archaic cultures. These hunter-gatherers came to Long Island between 12,500 and 3,000 years ago. The first cultural group, the Paleo-Indians (12,500 to 8,000 BP, before present, defined as 1950) hunted the mammoths and mastodons with spear points called Clovis points. Several Clovis points have been found on Long Island.

Artifact gathered at the Fischetti Site along West Meadow Creek. Photo from Beverly C. Tyler

Long Island Native Americans of the Algonquian culture settled in Brookhaven and used the land and the sea to provide all of their needs. These early settlers (3,000 to 1,000 BP, the Woodland culture period) used the rich coastal resources to support their native family groups.

There were basically two family groups of Native Americans in Brookhaven during the Woodland period. The Setalcotts, a name meaning “land on the mouth of the creek,” on the north near Long Island Sound, and the Unkechauges on the south shore near the Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. They were described as tall and muscular with straight hair and a reddish complexion. They lived in simple lodge dwellings. They hunted in the plentiful forests, fished in the well-stocked bays and streams and grew corn and a few vegetables in small farming plots.

In the 1500s, the first European traders and trappers traveled up and down the east coast of North America. They bought food and furs from the Native Americans in exchange for iron goods, cloth goods and trinkets. Gradually the Native American way of life began to change. At the same time, with no resistance to European diseases, the Native Americans were devastated by smallpox and other diseases. The native population decreased by more than 50 percent, leaving fertile lands open to settlement by people of English descent from New England, eastern Long Island and England. In 1609, Henry Hudson landed on Long Island, before beginning his exploration of the Hudson River. He described the Indians as “seeming very glad of our coming and brought greene tobacco and gave us of it for knives and beads.”

From the time of Native American hunter-gatherers through Colonial times, West Meadow Beach, West Meadow Creek and the adjacent tidal wetlands have been a valuable resource. Archaeological excavations have given us most of the details of how people lived in this area as early as 5,000 years ago. One of the most famous sites in New York State was a nearby shell midden named the Stony Brook Site, excavated by the state archaeologist William Richie in 1955.

From archaeological digs by Richie and others, we know that, between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago, the native people were hunters and gatherers, dependent upon hunting local animals and gathering plants, stones and clay for food, shelter, tools, clothes and medicines.

Aunt Amy’s Creek at West Meadow Creek, site of an early Native American village and an archaeological exploration by New York State Archaeologist William Richie. Vance Locke Mural

The Fischetti Site, a prehistoric Indian site for manufacturing tools and spear points, was discovered during a cultural resource investigation of a proposed residential development in November of 1980. Salvage excavations continued through October of 1981.

The site, on the east side of West Meadow Creek opposite the horse show grounds and the new walking trail, was occupied by Algonquin Indians about 3,000 years ago. We know they used this location then because of the type of arrow and spear points and blades recovered. The primary activity here, on the edge of Stony Brook Creek, was making stone tools. We know this by the vast quantities of stone flakes and roughed-out stones.

The almost total absence of food remains at the site shows that this was not the location of a village. However, a village site, the Stony Brook Site, did exist about 800 yards to the south, along what is now known as Aunt Amy’s Creek, during the same time period.

For thousands of years, the Indians used natural resources, wood, stone and animals to make their housing, tools and clothing. About 3,000 years ago, their way of life changed with the introduction of three things: pottery, the bow and arrow and horticulture (farming). Like the earlier Indians, the Woodland Indians continued to rely on natural resources.

The artifacts taken from the Fischetti Site are part of the collection of the Three Village Historical Society. Artifacts from the Richie site are a part of the collection of the New York State Museum.

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

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Rain may have postponed some fun Aug. 7, but the next day, more than 400 attendees at the Three Village Chamber of Commerce Community Family BBQ made up for it on the Aug. 8 rain date.

It was the chamber’s 19th barbecue held at West Meadow Beach where members and residents played games, had the chance to win raffle prizes donated by local businesses and enjoyed music as well as catering from David Prestia of Bagel Express. Children also had the chance to get their face painted. All proceeds from the raffle tickets sold at the barbecue went to Ronald McDonald House at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital.

Michael Ardolino, president emeritus, said the barbecue ended with a beautiful sunset that was created by a storm coming over the Sound as the sun was going down. Fortunately, the barbecue was over before another rain event hit the area.

BALANCE CHALLENGE

Grace Tesoriero of Port Jefferson snapped this balance challenge photo of her daughter Kristen, son-in-law Connor and grandchildren Gracie and Jacob at West Meadow Beach in Stony Brook while they were up visiting from Delaware in July. She writes, ‘I snapped the picture just in time as right after the challenge was no longer balance, but dusting off a lot of sand!’

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Stock photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Before the summer ends, go to the beach and close your eyes. Most of us are visually dominant, so we go somewhere like West Meadow Beach and look at everything from the boats and ferries out on the Long Island Sound to the young children running back and forth in and out of the water to the light sparkling across the waves.

While all of those are spectacular sensory stimuli, they are only a part of experiences we might otherwise take for granted at a local beach. Our ears can and do pick up so many seasonal cues. We might hear a seagull calling from the top of a bathroom hut to birds flying along the shore. Apart from the music that emanates from phones and radios along the crowded beach, we can hear the wind rustling through umbrellas, the sound of a young couple laughing about the ridiculous thing their friend did the night before, or the splashes a skimming rock makes as it gets farther away from shore. On a day with limited visibility, we can listen to boats calling to each other with their deep horns.

Our skin is awash in cues. As clouds float overhead, we appreciate the incredible temperature difference between the sun and the shade. Combined with a sudden gust of wind, our skin feels unexpectedly cool as we wait for that same wind to escort the cloud away. We take off our shoes and allow our feet, which carry the rest of our bodies hither and yon, to appreciate other textures. We dig our toes into the warm sand and lift our heels, allowing the grains of sand to trickle back to join their granule brethren.

We walk to the edge of the water and feel as if we’ve left the office, the shop, the lawn or the screaming kids far away. The lower water temperature draws away the heat that’s built up inside of us. If the surf kicks up, we can slide into the soft sand, sinking up to our ankles in the moistness.

Our feet can appreciate the fixed ripples on a sandbar that are smooth, soft and uneven.

As we walk up the beach, we can test the ability of our soles to manage through rocks often smoothed over by years of wave and water. We bend our knees more than normal to cushion the impact of a hard or uneven rock.

Our noses anticipate the beach before we leave the house. We lather coconut-scented sunscreen on our bodies and across our faces. As we get closer to the beach, we may pick up the marshy whiff of low tide. When we pull into a hot parking lot, the sweet and familiar ocean spray fills our lungs.

Once we’re swimming, our taste buds recognize the enormous difference between the waters of the Sound and a chlorinated pool. When we leave the sea, we head to the warm blanket or towel to partake of foods we associate with the beach, like the sandwiches we picked up at the deli on the way over, the refreshing iced tea or the crispy potato chips.

We saunter over to the ice cream truck, looking at a menu we’ve known for years. While we scan the offerings, we lick our lips and imagine the taste of the selections, trying to get those small bumps on our tongues to help us with the decision. We know how fortunate we are when the most difficult decision we have to make resolves around choosing the right ice cream to cap off a day that reminds us of the pleasures of living on Long Island.

THE MOON AND NEST

Jay Gao of Stony Brook captured this incredible image at West Meadow Beach with a Nikon D750 on May 16. He writes, ‘It was in the late afternoon, and  a full moon was rising  while the sun was  setting on the Sound.  I was amazed to notice that the moon was sitting on the top of the osprey nest like a huge egg.  In no time, the raptor came back to the nest and I took the shot.’

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West Meadow Beach at low tide. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

If you ever move away from Long Island, you may find relief and a longing.

The relief could take many forms. For starters, you may find a place with magnificent sidewalks that allows you to walk for miles without needing to step out into the road. Yes, there are such places, although they are mostly in urban environments, where you can watch people, find restaurants and not just bars that are open at all hours, and where you can shift from one ethnic neighborhood to another within a few blocks.

You may also find road relief, as people in other places may allow you to merge readily, may move at a different pace, and may smile and wave at you as you pass them while they are on their lawns, walking their dogs, throwing a ball with their daughters or sitting on a rocking chair on their front porches, appreciating the flow of human and avian traffic that passes by their houses.

You also may not miss the delays at the airports or the train stations, as you wonder if you’ll make it to the job interview, the meeting, the wedding or the date on time when construction, lane closures, accidents, sun glare or road flooding slow everything around you to a stop or a crawl.

You might also find yourself relieved that the delis — if you can find ones you like outside of Long Island — are much quieter, as people in other regions may not be as compelled to raise the decibel level in public to outcompete each other for stories or to place their turkey club orders.

But, then, you might also find yourself missing some key ingredient of Long Island life. There are plenty of landlocked places you can visit that have wonderful lakes, rivers and streams, but how many of them truly have Long Island’s magnificent and varied beaches?

You might miss sitting on a bluff in Port Jefferson and staring out at the harbor or looking through the channel into Long Island Sound. You might miss the chance to visit your favorite rocky beach on the North Shore, where you can walk slowly along, looking for the perfect skimming rocks, recalling the days decades ago when your grandfather taught you how to use surface tension to make a rock bounce its way far from shore.

You might miss the toughness of feet so accustomed to the uneven rocks that you pause momentarily when you see someone struggling to navigate them, remembering that you once found these rocks hard to cross as well.

You might miss the wonderful intertidal zone, which at low tide allows you to wander across rippled and water-cooled sand far from shore.

You might also miss winter beaches, where winds whip along the abandoned dunes and where, if a cold snap lasts long enough, you can see the top layer of water frozen as it heads toward shore.

If you ever took advantage of the myriad cultural and scientific opportunities on Long Island, you might also miss spectacular performances at the Staller Center, lectures and symposia at Stony Brook University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory or Brookhaven National Laboratory.

You might also miss the farms or vineyards on the East End, where you can admire the way rows of vines, trees or grass expand out from the road.

You might also miss the secrets hidden beneath the surface of the water. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to snorkel at Flax Pond or at a beach, you know that magnificent creatures — arthropods that live on yellow sponges and look like ancient creatures under a microscope — populate a completely different world that is within surprisingly easy reach.

The Town of Brookhaven began a capital improvements project at West Meadow Beach March 18. Photos by Rita J. Egan

While some residents are dieting and exercising in anticipation of the summer, a town beach is getting a makeover of its own.

Suffolk County plans to have a walking trail, dotted line in Old Field Farm that will wrap around West Meadow Creek and end at the beach. Photo from Kara Hahn’s office

The Town of Brookhaven will temporarily close the parking lot of West Meadow Beach in Stony Brook until Memorial Day weekend, May 25-27, according to a press release from the Town of Brookhaven Parks, Recreation and Sports and Cultural Resources Department. On March 18, the town began work on new curbs, sidewalks, plantings and pavilion renovations as part of the town’s parks capital improvement program. During the parking lot closure, residents will be permitted to park along Trustees Road.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said the work will address necessary repairs to maintain the park that she called “cherished” by the community.

“West Meadow Beach is not only a beautiful, relaxing recreation location, but also an environmental marvel,” Cartright said. “Each year, I work with the Parks Department to continue my commitment to making improvements at West Meadow Beach.”

In 2017, the town refurbished the bathrooms’ interiors and exteriors and added new outdoor shower pedestals and a lifeguard tower, according to Ed Morris, town parks commissioner.

In the near future, Suffolk County will begin work at Old Field Farm to create a walking path that will lead to the beach, according to Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket). She said the goal is to finish the trail by Memorial Day.

Hahn said there will be a pedestrian entrance on West Meadow Road on the eastern side of the farm, and the trail will run along the creek and come out on Trustees Road before visitors enter the walking section of the path. She said she’s excited about the location due to the beautiful views of the creek and historic farm.

“This is part of my efforts to make our public lands accessible to our community for recreational and respite enjoyment,” she said.

In the past, the legislator has spearheaded initiatives for a parking lot and walking path at Forsythe Meadow Woods County Park in Stony Brook and a parking lot at McAllister County Park in Belle Terre.

The Old Field Farm trail will be closed during the six horse shows that take place at the location throughout the year so as not to disturb the horses; however, the park will be open for the public to enjoy.

For more information about the town’s capital improvement project at West Meadow Beach, residents can call 631-451-8696.

3 monarch butterflies at West Meadow Wetlands Reserve

By Teresa Dybvig

We almost missed the stunning sight — hundreds of monarch butterflies in one place at our very own West Meadow Beach, or to be more precise, the West Meadow Wetlands Reserve.

 If you have walked along the beach recently, you’ve probably noticed the field of seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) lighting up the edge of the dunes all the way down the beach. 

On Thursday, Oct. 4, my husband and I happened to turn away from the water to gaze at the goldenrod glowing in the late daylight. As we approached, we saw hundreds — probably thousands — of buzzing bees and wasps on the flowers. Then we saw a flash of orange, then another, and another. To our astonishment, everywhere we looked, we could see up to 10 monarch butterflies without turning our heads!

We returned on Sunday with a camera and more time. Walking steadily down about a third of the beach, we counted 144 monarchs! I’m sure there were many more; the field is so deep we couldn’t see every flower, and when monarchs fold their wings to eat, they are as thin as a blade of grass from the front. And we didn’t even get to two-thirds of the field. I’m not exaggerating when I say there were, literally, hundreds of monarchs on the beach that day.

 If you have ever seen a monarch butterfly, you know it is gorgeous. It also has a jaw-dropping multigenerational migratory life cycle. The monarchs feasting on the goldenrods at West Meadow are fueling up to fly 2,700 miles to Mexico, at an average rate of 25 to 30 miles per day. Some have already traveled great distances to get here. 

This generation of monarchs is sometimes called the “supermonarch” because it’s the only generation strong enough to make the trip, overwinter on a cool, damp Mexican mountaintop, and fly north again to lay eggs in the earliest-growing milkweed in the southern U.S. before its life comes to an end. The eggs laid by the supermonarchs will grow into monarchs who will fly north and repeat the process, living only two to five weeks. 

The next supermonarchs are the offspring of the offspring of the previous generation of supermonarchs. Sometimes they are the offspring of the offspring of the offspring. So no monarch flying to Mexico has ever made the trip before. Yet thousands of generations have made the journey. 

 Our eastern monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus is in a heartbreakingly steep and dangerous decline. For every 10 monarchs in the sky two decades ago, there are now only two. Researchers estimate that this species could be extinct within 20 years. If the monarch ceases to exist, we humans will have been the cause.  

Monarchs are in danger because of human activities. We have cut down the trees monarchs require to overwinter in Mexico, we have killed milkweed that is critical for monarch caterpillars by spraying fields and their peripheries with herbicides like Round-up, we have paved over land where monarchs used to fuel up on nectar for their spectacular fall migration to Mexico, and we have contributed to changes in weather that can render the monarch’s route dangerous.

 But we humans have also been working to help the monarch stay in the skies. People in Mexico are growing trees to replace the ones that were cut. Government agencies and ordinary citizens in the U.S. and Canada are planting milkweed in reserves and home gardens.  And we are planting more fall-blooming native plants to fuel the long migration to Mexico.

 This is where West Meadow Wetlands Reserve comes in! The seaside goldenrod there is one of the primary foods for monarchs migrating south. The wildflower’s blooming season is relatively short, so if you want to see the miracle in action, keep a lookout next fall in late September and early October. 

Walk past the left end of the swimming area until you see the shining field of yellow flowers. Stand facing it for about a minute, and you will see a flash of orange, then another, and another. “We did this,” you can say to yourself. Our community. We set aside land for these flowers to grow, and they are helping these amazing creatures stay in the sky.

The author is a resident of Stony Brook.

SPARKLING SUNSET

Pamela Murphy of Stony Brook took this serene sunset picture at West Meadow Beach on Aug. 5 on her iPhone. She writes, “I never tire of gazing and capturing on film the sunsets we are privileged to enjoy at this jewel in our community. The brilliant saturation of colors, in addition to the way the sun was reflecting on the water leading right up to the shoreline, was beautiful to behold.”

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