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Flax Pond

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.

Stony Brook University grad student coordinator of the 2015 Diamondback Terrapin study Martana Edeas has her hands full. Photo from Nancy Grant

It’s hot. It’s muddy. It’s dirty. But it’s exciting work, if you like that sort of thing.

That was how Nancy Grant of the Friends of Flax Pond chose to describe her group’s latest initiative this summer tracking Diamondback Terrapin turtles at West Meadow Beach. And while they may move slowly, the Friends have been acting quickly to spot the four-legged reptiles at the height of their nesting season and working to preserve their species.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize we actually have turtles here,” Grant said of the program, which has been in operation annually since 2004. “You think you have to go someplace exotic to observes them, but you don’t.”

From the third week of June through the entire month of July, the Friends of Flax Pond has set out to conduct its annual six-week search for evidence of nesting turtles, documenting the population numbers and behaviors of what Grant called an important keystone species. The group meets every Sunday at West Meadow Beach at the park ranger sign at 9:30 a.m. and is accepting volunteers on an ongoing basis.

The Friends of Flax Pond have been keeping a vigilant eye on the shorelines of West Meadow Beach and Flax Pond with hopes of spotting the exotic creatures, as Grant referred to them as a vital way of keeping a finger on the pulse of the North Shore’s environment.

“They determine the health of the area,” she said. “It’s important to protect them because their numbers have gone down. They used to be over at Flax Pond, but we haven’t seen any there since 2009, with the exception of one recently.”

The Friends have spotted on average between nine and 10 nests a year, depending on the number of volunteers, Grant said. Once they find the nest, volunteers dig around it, put a cage over it and hold it in with tent stakes to keep predators away.

They’ll even go as far as using cayenne pepper to deter animals from some nests, but Grant admitted the nearby threats like foxes and birds were becoming privy to their methods and becoming less deterred by them.

From an educational standpoint, the group has also been working to launch its own Flax Pond Summer Research Institute this summer. For a $100 fee, the Friends is offering up an internship program at the Flax Pond Lab and salt marsh as well as West Meadow Beach that links up with academic marine scientists to gather data to document changes in the marshes there. This year, the group said it planned on documenting the status of species prior to a possible dredging of the Flax Pond inlet — a 146-acre tidal wetland on the North Shore — which the Friends has been adamantly advocating for.

Earlier this year, Old Field Mayor Michael Levine and the board of trustees called on legislators from the county, state and town levels to join with Stony Brook University and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to see the pond dredged and protect the fin and shellfish populations known to once thrive there.

“If you don’t have a marsh there, you have nothing between you and those major waves,” Grant said. “It protects real estate. As much as having a dock is nice, it won’t matter if you don’t have those plants there.”
The application deadline for the institute is July 13 and an application can be found at flaxpondfriends.org.

Stony Brook University runs a lab on the waterfront at Flax Pond and researchers there say they worry about the deteriorating water quality there and its impact on the wildlife. Photo by Phil Corso

The Village of Old Field is looking to do some ecological spring cleaning.

Flax Pond, a 146-acre tidal wetland on the North Shore, is in dire need of dredging before it deteriorates into an environmental disaster, nearby residents and advocates have contested. The pond’s last dredge was in 1947.

Residents’ names have been flooding a petition touting more than 210 signatures to date calling for action at the inlet there.

John Robinson, who lives near the water with his wife Fredelle and is at the mercy of the declining water quality there, has been helping circulate that petition and said the buildup of sand within the inlet has prevented the pond from properly emptying at low tide. He said he fears the region is just one major storm away from forcing the inlet to close off completely, which would have devastating effects on the ecosystem there, as the inlet acts as a marine nursery for the Long Island Sound.

“We have been watching the pond deteriorate over the last quarter of a century,” he said. “I’ve seen really major changes in the vegetation, the depth and the sea life. There are a lot of things going on, but one key aspect of this is the loss of adequate outflow.”

Fredelle Robinson, an avid fisher and nature lover, said the negative impacts were both aesthetic and environmental. Not only is the wildlife changing, but her waterfront home could be at risk if the water does not drain, she said.

“I used to stand in the inlet at night and fish. We could hear the striped bass and their tails flopping in the water,” she said. “You just don’t hear that anymore. Saltwater marshes all over are under stress and this is just another example.”

Old Field Mayor Michael Levine and the board of trustees also called on legislators from the county, state and town levels to join with Stony Brook University and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to see the pond dredged and protect the fin and shellfish populations known to once thrive there.

A throng of concerned citizens, elected officials and Stony Brook University researchers gathered at the Childs Mansion near the inlet Sunday for a lecture sponsored by the Friends of Flax Pond to explore ways to address the clogging.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) has been at the forefront of the Friends of Flax Pond’s efforts to address the deterioration on the water and spoke at the group’s Sunday panel. He said there were many factors that went into the best course of action for both the inlet and the surrounding community, all of which needed to be ironed out before taxpayer dollars get thrown into the mix.

“While we’re searching for money to do something to make sure the inlet doesn’t close, we’re also searching for answers to the questions of how to actually write a description of what we’d like to have done,” Englebright said. “We don’t have a scope of work yet that is well defined.”

Nancy Grant, program director with the 12-year-old grassroots Friends of Flax Pond group, said the large mound of sand in the middle of the inlet has gotten worse with each passing year. And if not addressed, the saltwater pond could potentially revert back to a freshwater body, which it has not been for nearly 200 years, she said.

“Flax Pond serves as a buffer to that whole area as far as flooding is concerned. It has also been supporting a lot of the health of the Long Island Sound,” Grant said. “It absorbs the crashing of the waves. There are homes at risk. There are species at risk.”

Grant’s group hosts a lecture series each winter and also sponsors various environmental workshops in conjunction with Stony Brook University, which works out of a lab directly on the inlet. Steve Abrams, manager of the lab, described Flax Pond as one of the most pristine marshes on all of Long Island. He said a dredging was necessary in order to sustain marine life at the inlet.

“It has been really important for studying plants and animals in a relatively natural state. But over the last number of years, serious storms have changed things,” he said. “Tides don’t drain the way they should. It would be unfortunate if species there lost their place to live and it would be less than desirable for research.”

Shawn Nuzzo, president of the Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook, said Flax Pond was an example of what the Long Island Sound faces as a whole and includes factors beyond the small Village of Old Field. He said old-fashioned power plants, like one in nearby Port Jefferson, dump warm water into the sound, which translates directly into the Flax inlet. He cited recent legislation out of the Town of Brookhaven requiring improved wastewater standards in the Carmans River on the South Shore and said similar action was needed on the north end.

“We must take a hard look at how we are going to stop this loop if we intend on preserving our waterways for future generations,” Nuzzo said.