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Jul 11, 2017 9:45 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

July Sightings

The sand bar at Main Beach developed a “hole” (center) that drains the inner lagoon, creating a rip current. MIKE BOTTINI
Jul 11, 2017 9:54 AM

After a particularly cool, damp and windy June, we finally got some classic summer beach weather last week. The ocean beaches in East Hampton that I visited all had a wide and very shallow offshore sandbar with a deep lagoon separating the bar from the beach. It was fascinating to note the daily changes in the position of the bar as it moved landward, filling in the lagoon and becoming part of the nearshore beach at low tide.The orientation of the sandbar and lagoon in relation to the berm, perhaps combined with the predominantly westerly winds, created a river-like current in the lagoon and on the shoreward portion of the sandbar, with the direction of flow being eastward. As holes and low points developed in the sandbar, the current turned seaward, flowing through the bar and into the deep water beyond, a classic rip current.

Lots of baitfish collected in the lagoon, and at low tide the terns took advantage of the concentrated food, diving and picking off two-to-three-inch-long silvery fish. Even the gulls joined in on the feast. Although rather inept at catching fish, they seemed to manage quite well. I did not get a good look at the fish but my guess is they were sand lance.

Tens of thousands of small shells formed the ocean beach wrack line this week. A close look identified them as mole crab shells. Was this a sign of a massive die-off caused by an unknown environmental pollutant? No. All the shells were empty. These were the cast off exoskeletons of mole crabs whose soft, inner body parts had grown and needed larger shells.

Bob Savage reported piles of dead gypsy moth larva at the base of oaks in the Northwest–Barcelona Preserve area. There’s noticeable damage along Rte. 114 but not nearly as much as during the “outbreak” years when the trees are stripped bare. Perhaps the cool and wet month of June enabled the proliferation and spread of the fungus that weakens and eventually kills the larva.

Our native milkweeds (swamp, common and the strikingly orange-colored butterfly weed) are in flower this month. These plants in the asclepias genus are perennial, sun-lovers whose broken stems, leaves and flowers ooze a milky sap, hence the common name “milkweed.”

The milky sap contains cardiac glycosides that are toxic to many animals, but harmless to many insect species that feed on the plants’ leaves and nectar. In fact, several species feed exclusively on milkweeds, having evolved an interesting symbiotic relationship in which the insect’s larval stages accumulate the toxins as a defensive strategy against insect predators, who find this species unpalatable. The best known example of this is the monarch butterfly, of which I have not seen many this year.

Among the other flower buds that open this month are those of the extremely fragrant swamp azalea, sweet pepperbush (clethra), and the yellow-fringed orchid, all most commonly encountered near the upland edge of freshwater wetlands.

The latter is found along the shoulder of Barnes Hole Road and that roadside population, once numbering in the hundreds, has been reduced to a handful. According to Julie Sakellariadis, who is involved in the Garden Club of East Hampton’s campaign to restore this orchid colony, last summer there were 17 sterile plants, four plants with flower buds, and only a single plant that actually flowered. After pruning back some of the woody shrubs and trees at the site and protecting the plants with deer and rabbit-proof wire cages last year, she reported 28 sterile plants and five with flower buds last week.

The demise of the orchids over the last several decades has been the result of a number of factors—chief among them are roadside mowing by the Town Highway Department and browsing by deer.

It’s hard to believe, as summer has just begun, but the shorebirds’ southern migration will commence in late July. Many shorebirds that nested in northern Canada have completed their mating, nest-building, incubating eggs and rearing young chores, and they and their successfully fledged young are making their way south. Among these are the black-bellied plover, red knot, least sandpiper, short-billed dowitcher, sanderlings and semipalmated plovers. They are a good reminder to get out in the field and enjoy the summer while it’s here!

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