Last Saturday, a group of paddlers from the Huntington-Oyster Bay chapter of the Audubon Society rendezvoused at Nissequogue River State Park for a trip along the lower Nissequogue. It was a perfect day—sunny, warm and with a very faint tail breeze—to be on the water observing the signs of spring and, hopefully, the river otter that inhabit the waterway.
The Nissequogue is one of four major rivers found on Long Island, and the only one flowing north and emptying into the Long Island Sound. The river’s length is listed as approximately 8 miles, from its headwaters at the outlet of Stump Pond in Blydenburgh County Park to the sound near Sunken Meadow State Park. However, the river’s watershed extends a bit further south, with linked ponds, drainage ditches, culverts and creeks, reaching as far as the large state office complex south of Suffolk County Veterans Memorial Highway or Route 454.
Another, more extensive tributary originates in swampland just north of the LIE, making its way tenuously north in a series of disconnected greenbelt ponds, golf course ponds and narrow creeks to empty into Miller’s Pond, whose outlet flows westerly into the eastern arm of Stump Pond. Not too long ago, conservationists hoped this latter wetland complex would provide a greenbelt connection to the Connetquot River, linking Long Island’s north and south shores, and creating a protected wildlife corridor for species such as the river otter.
Our launch was timed to catch a fair tide, an important consideration when planning a paddle on the lower, tidewater section of the river, both for the boost from the tidal current and in order to ensure adequate water depth. Even with a canoe’s shallow draft, the river’s large tidal range (7 feet) leaves some of the more interesting shore side areas high and dry, and unreachable, at low tide.
We planned to paddle upstream on an incoming, or flood, tide, departing three-and-a-half hours before high tide and finishing the 5-mile paddle before the tide turned. Our first interesting sighting, within minutes of launching, was a horned grebe decked out in its auburn red-and-yellow breeding plumage, diving for fish among the marina floats.
The next wildlife sighting was another migrant that nests north and west of Long Island: Lesser yellowlegs. Small flocks were often heard before they were seen, taking flight with a noisy call described as “kleet, kleet!” Unlike the grebe, this long-legged shorebird searches for small fish on the marsh edges and in the shallow waters of mudflats.
Most numerous here were the small, dark geese with the white necklace called brant, found feeding in flocks of several dozen where they could reach the subaquatic vegetation growing on the river bottom. Their soft, low “cronk” calls could be heard over the entire first mile of the river as they fed. They are also heading northbound, in this case to nesting grounds on Baffin Island, Ellesmere Island and other points as far north in the arctic as one can find terra firma.
A stop to go ashore at a wooded point of land, and likely otter scent station, revealed the telltale tracks of the horseshoe crab. The lower Nissequogue forms an estuary where these prehistoric creatures reside, and the pockets of sandy beaches here and at the confluence with the sound are important egg laying sites for this and the salt marsh turtle, known as the diamondback terrapin. None of the 8- to 10-inch diameter depressions held the crab’s BB-sized eggs, and it is at least a month too early for turtle nesting.
Speaking of turtles, as we paddled up a small tributary to a dam and pond to check for otter sign, we ran aground on a large snapping turtle. Several of these behemoths were found basking in the shallows of the riverbank. I use the term “basking” in the sense of sitting in very shallow water where the entire dark shell is submerged, but still able to get some solar gain from the sun. Both snapping turtles and diamondback terrapins will bask out of the water, but I have never seen either species do that.
We had left the salt marshes and ribbed mussel beds behind, an indication of a shift in salinity toward the freshwater end of the spectrum. Although snapping turtles can handle being in saltwater, a close examination of their preferred salt marsh and estuarine habitats usually reveals that they are positioned in areas where fresh groundwater is seeping into the estuary. At both lower Nissequogue locations where we observed snapping turtles, freshwater from an adjacent pond or swamp flowed into the brackish river.
Even among folks who love turtles, an encounter with a snapping turtle can bring out the fear and loathing response. I’ve had to handle many during my years doing turtle surveys, and I have to admit they are difficult to like. Their smell is very much like that of a residential septic tank, and that may account for the fact that they are one of the few species that can live in sewer systems.
Their disposition is best described as ornery. I’ve learned to respect not only their sharp, toothless beak, but their surprising long necks that extend the length of their shell and their long, sharp claws. In their defense, they are quite docile in the water. Nature left them quite vulnerable in terms of shell protection, and that probably accounts for their ornery disposition on land. There is no way they can tuck their large heads and long tails into their protective shells!
Despite its body odor, poor public image (often blamed for the death and mutilation of mute swan cygnets) and oversized soft body parts relative to its shell, the snapper is a survivor. My money is on Chelydra serpentina as the turtle that is most likely to survive the Age of Humans.