Sunday, June 02, 2013

To Colabaugh Pond for Periodical Cicadas

I choose a 40-minute drive to Croton instead of an hour-and-a-half drive to Clove Lakes Park on Staten Island for Brood II of the periodical cicadas this morning (Matthew Wills, the Brooklyn naturalist who writes the Backyard and Beyond blog, was heading to Clove Lakes and invited me to join him and his crew; I grew up near Clove Lakes and was tempted but the tolls and the pain-in-the-ass factor of driving through the city dissuaded me).

Colabaugh Pond was the general destination; I explain why here. We had the car windows down and heard them as soon as we turned onto Mount Airy Road from Route 127. At the intersection of Colabaugh Pond Road, I stayed on Mount Airy and turned right onto Pond Meadow Road instead. That’s when they were 17 years ago (duh). Today the noise came from high in the trees, all around us. It’s a small road, barely wide enough for two cars, and I pulled onto the shoulder. A young man was straightening up his yard.

When he looked over at us I called out, “We came for the bugs!” He said the sound was nonstop (“sound” is a better word than “noise” for what we heard). I asked how long it had been going on for, and he said for five or six days. Gina asked if it was annoying and he said no, he had gotten used to it. I asked if he had been here 17 years ago. He grinned. “No! I was only 15.”

We found a dead cicada on the black top and then found several live ones clinging to a barberry bush. Two or three flew by at eye level. They were toy-like in the way they flew. Gina photographed a few and one landed on my shirt-trail and then on my right hand when I reached out toward where it was flying. The sound was constant, almost frog-like, easing when we walked up the road and into a clearing, and then getting more intense again as the road rose into the woods. There seemed to be many more than 17 years ago but I easily could be mis-remembering.

Back in the car, we drove a short way up Mount Airy until we could no longer hear them, backtracked, and then turned left onto Colabaugh Pond Road and continued, again, until we could no longer hear them. Colabaugh Pond seemed to be the epicenter.

That was pretty much it. The sound was sort of pleasant, certainly not annoying (although I think the density per acre was much less than it is elsewhere). There wasn’t much to see. There are three species of periodical cicada that emerge as part of Brood II but I didn’t try to identify the Colabaugh Pond species. The thought that they were there 17 years ago, and every preceding 17 years going back for who knows how long, was awe-inspiring but the spectacle itself wasn’t.

I’ll be 76 next time and 93 the time after that. Although it wasn’t awe-inspiring it was interesting and worth witnessing. I’m planning to be there again.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Cicadas in Westchester? Maybe. Maybe Not.

Cicadas took over my neighborhood, and most of Staten Island, in 1962. We called them 17-year-locusts and we used a magnifying glass to burn holes in the discarded exoskeletons. I was 8.

By 1979, I had learned that they were really cicadas, not locusts, but I was living in the Adirondacks, beyond their range, so I missed them.

Seventeen years later, in 1996, I was working as a reporter in northern Westchester. In May, a press release came into the newsroom from researchers in Connecticut. It said that they were sure that the so-called Brood II of the periodical cicada was extirpated from Westchester but, just in case, let us know if you hear of any reports.

I knew by then that a great, obscure naturalist, a Staten Islander named William T. Davis (1862-1945), had traveled throughout the region in 1894 to witness and study the emergence of the so-called Brood II. 

So I called the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, which had William T. Davis’s journals in its archives, and asked someone to check his entries from May and June 1894, in case he had been to Westchester.

In fact, he had, they told me. They found an entry saying that Davis had found cicadas near Colabaugh Pond, in Cortlandt. I wrote a column about it, and reported that scientists were fairly sure that there were no more cicadas in Westchester County.

Then on June 4, I got a phone call in the newsroom. What happened next was the subject of a subsequent column, published on June 6, 1996. Here it is:

Cicadas arrive in Westchester

The scientists wanted to be wrong about this one - and they were.

Last month, several researchers studying 17-year-cicadas put out word that they were interested in hearing from Hudson Valley residents who found cicadas in their neighborhoods.

But Westchester County residents need hardly bother, they said at the time. No one in Westchester reported encountering cicadas 17 years ago - when they last emerged - and the insects were likely to be extinct locally.

But it turns out that they aren't.

Yesterday morning, cicadas were singing their weird song in at least two pockets of woods in the Mount Airy section of Cortlandt, near Colabaugh Pond.

Roland Asp, who found them in his yard, pointed to a couple of cicadas clinging to the branches of tiny spruce trees. He looked on the trunk of a maple tree and found another, milky white - it had apparently just shed its larval skin and hadn't taken on the characteristic black, brown and orange color of an adult cicada. Nearby, hundreds of discarded skins were piled at the base of an oak.

`` Saturday, this whole tree was crawling, '' he said.

By yesterday, they had ascended to the leaves, which is part of their odd life cycle.

Seventeen-year-cicadas burrow out of the ground on an evening in late May, shed their skins and metamorphose into adults. The adults climb trees and within a couple of days the males start to sing, to attract a female. By mid-June, the cicadas mate and the females immediately lay their eggs in slits in tree branches.

The adults die in late June. In August, the eggs hatch. The tiny larvae fall to the ground and creep into the soil, where they feed on fluid in tree roots. There they stay, waiting for nobody-knows-what signal until they emerge again on an evening in late May or early June - 17 years hence.

`` Friday night, I heard them everywhere - mainly walking through the grass, '' Asp said.

But had they started to sing yet?

`` Not a word, '' he said.

He was standing in the yard of his small house at 10 a.m. A fast brook curved through the yard. A snapping turtle lumbered along the road. Birds were quiet. There was a pause in the conversation.

Then the noise in the leaves began. At times, it was like a power-saw in the distance. At other times it sounded like a chorus of other-worldly voices chanting a high-pitched waaaaaaaaw-waaaaaaaaw-waaaaaaaaaw, holding the notes for many seconds.

In New Haven, Chris Maier, an entomologist with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, was happy to hear about cicadas in Cortlandt. He was one of the scientists who thought they were gone from the county - probably because development had usurped their range.

In retrospect, though, it makes sense that cicadas still live near Colabaugh Pond in Cortlandt. In early June 1894, a man who spent his life studying cicadas - William T. Davis - traveled to Cortlandt from Staten Island.

`` Not far from Colabaugh Pond, we found them quite numerous, '' he wrote in his journal.

Maier said he'll make his own cicada search in Westchester tomorrow. He was especially intrigued that a Yonkers resident named Alicja Sullivan reported that she found two cicadas in her yard, in the city's Bryn Mawr section.

`` It's good to know that they're still doing well there, '' said Maier.

Here's a map of where cicadas have emerged already in 2013. They will be back again in 2030.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Henry David Thoreau, Climate Change Researcher

Scientists in Massachusetts are conducting a fascinating climate change study using baseline data collected in the mid 1800s by Henry David Thoreau. I wrote about it a few days ago for Connecticut Audubon Society's blog, here.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Mysterious Plastic Pellets of Mamaroneck Harbor

If we needed a reminder that anything we put down our storm drains ends up in Long Island Sound and its tributaries, we got one recently in Mamaroneck, where millions of tiny plastic pellets washed up on Harbor Island Park.

I wrote about how a local resident got to the bottom of it, on Save the Sound's Green Cities Blue Waters blog. Click here.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Blocking Roads to Stop Development

One way to stop development that will ruin natural areas is to stop the building of roads. The Times has an obituary today of Maurice Barbash, a real estate developer who successfully fought a plan by Robert Moses to build a highway along Fire Island in the early 1960s. Other successful examples I know of: The Richmond Parkway, on Staten Island, and the highway across lower Manhattan that galvanized Jane Jacobs, both of which were Moses’ ideas; the Rye-Oyster Bay Bridge (also Moses), and Route 117 from Mount Pleasant to northern Westchester, which, if I remember correctly, the Rockefellers were in favor of (the halting of that project explains why Route 172 is a four-lane, divided highway near Pocantico Hills, from Route 9 to Route 9A but no further).

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

January 29 Talk in Guilford: Adriaen Block and the Discovery of Long Island Sound

It's the 400th anniversary of the European discovery of Long Island Sound and the Connecticut River, and if you’re interested in the story of Adriaen Block and his fellow Dutch sailors, head to the Guilford Free Library on Tuesday evening, January 29, to hear my talk.

Block's story is a tale of mutiny, gun battles, fierce economic competition, burning ships, and explorations of uncharted harbors and bays.

Few people know the full story of Adriaen Block and the other Dutch sailors who first ventured into the Sound and the Connecticut River. And even while the quadricentennial of Henry Hudson’s first voyage up the Hudson was widely celebrated, little attention is being paid to the quadricentennial of the Sound and the Connecticut River.

In fact, we're not even sure when exactly Block made his voyage of discovery. It might have been in 1612, or in 1613, although it seems certain that it was not in 1614, as many books and websites claim.

I wrote about Block’s voyage in This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound and have expanded and adapted that chapter of the book for this talk.

This will be the third time I’ve given it. Previous occasions were at the New Haven Museum and in Essex for Potapaug Audubon, Essex Land Trust and the Essex Historical Society.

The Guilford Free Library is at 67 Park Street, right on the beautiful Guilford green. The organizer of the talk is the Falkner’s Light Brigade, a group that maintains the lighthouse on Faulkner’s Island Lighthouse. The talk is free, of course, and everyone is welcome.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

A Look Back at Water Quality in the Summer of 2012

I’ve been reviewing water quality data from the summer of 2012 – an unusually bad summer on Long Island Sound – on Save the Sound’s Green Cities Blue Waters blog.

Click here for the most recent post, and the click back for two earlier posts.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Warmer Water in the Sound Means Different Kinds of Fish

The waters of Long Island Sound are getting warmer and the fish populations are changing as a result. I wrote a long post about it on Green Cities Blue Waters, Save the Sound's blog, here.

It's based on a peer-reviewed paper published over the summer by Penny Howell and Peter Auster, and is work a look.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Fall Seems To Be The Season for Ocean Sunfish, aka Mola mola

A fellow who was in a boat off Greenwich yesterday saw one of Long Island Sound's rarest sights: an ocean sunfish. I had blogged about them several years ago and so searched back, turning up these posts:

November 2, 2006: Ocean Sunfish: A Really Big Fish in Larchmont?

November 3, 2006: Ocean Sunfish: Among the Rarest of the Rarities

November 7, 2006: Ocean Sunfish: Not Quite Unheard of in Long Island Sound

October 12, 2009: Sailor Sees a Really Big Fish in the Sound

Note the dates. Autumn is obviously when this large and unusual fish visits the Sound. All the sightings were in the western end as well.

Here's what Kit Kittle, who was sailing yesterday off Greenwich, wrote to me:

About a half mile south of Great Captain Island near Greenwich in 50 feet of water at 4:30 today, I could see a big fin sticking up in the air about half the time between the growing white caps.  I went towards it and followed it for a half hour.  The fin was long - about 18 inches - and was just sticking up gently waving around as if whoever owned it was not swimming very hard at all. 

I thought it was the flipper of a seal, or perhaps the tail of a whale, but I could not be certain.  But it did not take a breath.  It was not afraid of me or my boat that was splashing loudly against the oncoming waves ten feet from it.  I could see it was at least five or six feet long and pretty rectangular and the fins were coming sideways off its back end. 

I have since read enough on that google search to be sure that this was a sunfish or mola mola.  It was swimming towards Long Island.  I have seen these unusual fish twice before at much greater distances, but I had a sense that this fish was looking at me as I was at him.  It was a life affirming experience to see this mola mola swimming gently in the choppy Sound.

Please do post if anybody else sees this visitor.  

9:50 a.m. update: Save the Sound has a good shot of an ocean sunfish in Long Island Sound on its FAcebook page, here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Pesticides in Long Island Sound Lobsters. What Does It Mean?

Tiny amounts of pesticides have been found in a handful of lobsters caught in Long Island Sound and tested by the Connecticut DEEP and UConn. You can read a good account of it in the Ct Mirror, here.

It is an interesting finding, but it’s also perplexing. Researchers will now look for a cause and effect link between pesticides and the 1999 lobster die-off in Long Island Sound. But it’s not clear to me how this discovery in 2012 will lead to any conclusions about something that happened 13 years ago.

To review: There was an enormous die-off of lobsters in the Sound in 1999. The die-off coincided with the spraying of pesticides to kill mosquitoes during a West Nile outbreak. It also coincided with a period of warming water temperatures in the Sound. And it coincided with a peak in the Sound’s commercial lobster catch.

The warmer water is significant because the American lobster, Homarus americanus, is a cold-water species, and Long Island Sound is at the extreme southern end of its inshore range. In other words, before the Sound’s water started warming, water temperatures in the Sound were about as warm as lobsters could tolerate anyway.

So by the late 1990s, there were millions of lobsters living in conditions that were unsuitable for them. The Sound’s lobster population was stressed by a change in habitat conditions.

The peak in the commercial catch is interesting because throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Long Island Sound – particularly the western half – was essentially a lobster ranch. Lobstermen would consistently pull traps crammed with 20 lobsters feeding on bait; typically 19 of those lobsters were too small to be kept legally. So the lobstermen would throw them back. The small lobsters would then enter more traps and continue to feed on the bait, and so on until the lobsters were big enough to keep.

In other words the lobstermen were essentially ranching or farming lobsters, feeding them on bait in cages, and spurring the growth in population. Overpopulation was another source of stress. (That, by the way, is not just my opinion; it was the conclusion of the Connecticut DEEP and the New York State DEC.)

Scientists concluded a decade ago that water temperature and overpopulation were among a few environmental stresses that led to the die-off by making the lobsters vulnerable to a parasite that killed them.

Now maybe pesticides should be added to that list. Or not.

The recent tests that detected the presence of pesticides in Sound lobsters are far more sensitive than previous tests. They were able to find concentrations of pesticides that were too small to be detected 10 years ago.

The tests of course don’t answer the question of whether the pesticides were there in 1999. Also still to be determined is whether the tiny amounts detected are enough to do any damage to the lobsters. It’s also unknown whether pesticides will show up in a new batch of lobsters being tested now.

And it’s important to remember that the new tests are from this year. The lobsters die-off happened in 1999. And once they died, they stayed dead – the population has not rebounded.

So if the lobster population died off in 1999, what is the significance of pesticides found in Long Island Sound lobsters in 2012?

Again, the presence of pesticides in Long Island Sound lobsters is an interesting finding. But for now al it means is that pesticides were found in a few lobsters. It does not mean – yet – that pesticides are hurting the lobsters. Nor does it mean – yet – that pesticides caused the lobster die-off in 1999. Further tests may answer those questions.

Does it sound as if I am trying to rationalize or excuse the use of pesticides? I’m not. You can read just about everything I’ve written on this blog about pesticides and lobsters here. We as a society use way, way too many pesticides. I’m for banning or severely limiting their use.

But the more important reality may be that there are no longer a significant number of lobsters in the Sound because the habitat has changed and Long Island Sound simply is no longer lobster habitat.

The DEEP's press release about it is here, although you'll notice that they bury the pesticide finding in the 13th paragraph.

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