Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Life on the Marshes

Life on the Marsh

                                                                                                                                                                Sydney M. Williams
                                                                                                                                                                September 29, 2009

“Poets who know no better rhapsodize about the peace
of nature, but a well-populated marsh is a cacophony.”
                                                                                                                                      Bern Keating (1915-2004)
                                                                                                                                      Writer and Photographer

Across the Connecticut River from our house, clearly visible with binoculars, is the sign identifying the Old Saybrook restaurant “Dock & Dine.” Directly in front of us, on the tidal flats of the Duck River, we have our own “Fly in and Feast.” Seagulls, Egrets, and Herons on spindly legs, eyes sharp and beaks at the ready, walk delicately across the mud looking for mollusks and invertebrates, newly revealed with the ebb tide.

A salt water marsh is abundant in life and abounds in the sustenance necessary for its inhabitants. It is an ‘eat or be eaten’ world. Fiddler and Blue Crabs, snacking on invertebrates and mollusks, sidle through the muck, wary less they become breakfast for a hungry gull. This symbiotic way of life is ever-present. Muskrats slither from their embankment homes hoping to snag a fish – a fish that was not supper for an Osprey the evening before.

The name of the river is derived from the Algonquin word, Quinetucket, which means a long, tidal river. It rises 407 miles north of where it empties into Long Island Sound, just above Moose Head Dam on the New Hampshire-Canada border. It starts as not much more than a stream; at its estuary it separates Old Lyme from Old Saybrook by two miles. The river serves as a migratory corridor for Canadian Geese, Great Horned Owls, American Black Ducks, Mallards, Great Blue Herons and Great White Egrets among others. As winter descends and the northern reaches of the river ice over, American Bald Eagles can be sighted as far south as Old Lyme. In the spring, as the earth warms, Ospreys return to fledge their young, nesting on man-made posts.

According to science writer, Beva Nall-Langdon, brackish tidal marsh productivity can approach that of most high-yielding croplands – up to ten tons per acre per year, though three to six tons are more common. Mr. Nall-Langdon writes: “This abundant biomass decays each year, resulting in large quantities of detritus.” This detritus provides a food source from mollusks and fish to much of the bird life.

A recent study of Rugged Rock Creek in Old Saybrook identified 115 different plant species. Marsh rivers are abundant with seaweeds, such as Cladophora (Mermaid’s Hair), which can entrap one’s oars when rowing, and sea lettuce, both of which are fitted with air bladders allowing them, to float on the surface. On land, but within the tidal plain, can be found sedge, cordgrass, eelgrass, cattails, goldenrod and bulrushes. These grasses serve as both food and nesting material for much of the bird life. The ubiquitous and non-native Phragmite, which has been degrading the marsh for several years, has been attacked in recent years by the D.E.P. under a marsh restoration program, and is now in retreat. These grasses grow six to eight feet in height, cutting off the light and destroy native grasses. Their disappearance is a welcome sight.

Animal life on the marsh is omnipresent. Mollusks, including Blue Mussels and Eastern Oysters, can be found on the river floor, and serve as food to birds, as well as to Crustaceans, including Fiddler and Blue Crabs, Horseshoe Crabs and shrimp.

Besides marine fish, such as Porgies, Flounder, Blackfish and Striped Bass, the river is home to anadromous fish, such as Atlantic Salmon, American Shad, American Eel and Striped Bass. In all, the Connecticut River is home to about 60 varieties of fish. During late fall salmon return to their natal waters, often traveling thousands of miles to the fresh water where they were spawned, climbing man-made ladders to avoid man-constructed dams.

The return of the salmon after years of absence is testament to the work done by the United States Fish and Wild Life Service, to the D.E.P. (Department of Environmental Protection) and to the Nature Conservancy in cleaning up the river. In a book on my shelves, A Statistical Account of Middlesex County, published in 1819, the author writes (regarding the Connecticut River), “For several years the quantity of fish in the river has very considerably decreased.” Raw sewage, tanneries, a lead mine were all, in part, responsible. Industrialization was beginning and people were more concerned with increasing their incomes than with environmental causes. That attitude, fortunately for us who now live along the river, has changed.

The marsh is home to a number of mammals and amphibians, including shrews, voles, frogs, turtles, toads, snakes and muskrats. On occasion we have seen from our house weasels, which, while common in Washington, are rare (or at least rarely seen) in our marsh. On the other hand, deer are frequent visitors, especially in the early morning, feasting on salt hay.

But it is the birdlife that is most readily apparent. As one walks across catwalks and marsh toward the water, Red-winged Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens and Swamp Sparrows dart back and forth. Plovers and Sandpipers patrol the mud flats, intermingling with Seagulls and Egrets in their search for invertebrates and other morsels newly revealed on the mud flats. Incoming tides bring diving birds, like Black Ducks, Cormorants and Mallards. Stately Swans, while not native to the area and in fact considered a nuisance by the D.E.P., sail gracefully with the current.

A saltwater marsh is a dynamic environment. The salinity of the water changes with the tide, but more importantly with the seasons. Plant and animal life must adapt. Given the number of species of both classes, a remarkable success and balance have been achieved.

Bern Keating is right. Nature, defined as the material world existing without man, is neither tranquil nor peaceful. The sounds from the marsh, especially in the evening and early morning hours, can be discordant – eerie and beautiful at the same time, like an orchestra warming up. One life often depends upon taking another. A kill is executed not for pleasure, but to sustain life. Animals, however, are territorial. Birds, with an uncanny honing instinct, migrate with the seasons from thousands of miles away to the nest they vacated months earlier. Should another bird have moved in, a fight will ensue. Crows, particularly, are territorial and familial and are quick, and harsh in their calls, to reclaim captured territory. Mammals live and die within a few miles, or less, from where they were born; the relocation of crustaceans, mollusks and invertebrates depend upon tides and currents.

While the marsh is an important aspect to my life in Old Lyme, environmentalists can be over-zealous about their causes. A recent example was the subject of an article in Monday’s Investor’s Business Daily, pitting drought-stricken farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley against the Delta Smelt, a fish threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Water, a valuable commodity most places but particularly so in this farming region of California, is being diverted into the ocean to save this smelt. As a result, according to some, 145,000 acres are creating a dust bowl equal to those of the 1930s. Unemployment, in farming towns like Mendota, has reached 40%. Despite the pleasure of the Delta Smelt to those who dine on it, life will go on. Every year thousands of species (including plants) disappear. New species appear or are discovered, though at a lesser rate. The planet and everything on it is in constant flux. Common sense suggests that protecting a particular species must be weighed against the cost of its preservation. While the symbiotic and interdependency of life is a fact, no one species, including man, serves as the critical lynch pin.

But back to my marsh; it reminds me of what New York’s lower east side must have been like a hundred years ago – the sounds and the color; immigrants speaking multiple languages, practicing their own special religions, exhibiting their own customs and wearing the clothing of their native lands. Though the marsh is not the “melting pot” that constitutes America, there is a symbiosis that is beautiful in the way it all works. Gazing from my window on to the tidal flats of the Duck River I am witness to a peep hole on life – a vision of a city in the marsh.