Early May Observations

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It was another perfect day for last weekend’s “Signs of Spring” paddle on Big Fresh Pond. During the leisurely two-mile-long circumnavigation of the pond, we noted that the only plants not showing some signs of leafing out or flowering were the tupelos, or pepperidge trees. In the adjacent upland forest, the newly emerging oak leaves revealed a reddish tinge, a color based on their predominant pigment: anthocyanin. It will not be long before chlorophyll moves into the growing leaf structure and masks the red pigment for the duration of the growing season.
Hanging in two- to three-inch-long clusters just below the leaves were the oak’s pollen structures. These have yet to release their tiny but numerous windborne pollen grains that paint the pond’s waters, windshields, and house windows yellow, and are the cause of allergic reactions in many people. But that will happen before month’s end.

Most conspicuous among the flowering plants were the white blooms of shadbush, a small tree that dots the shoreline edge. In the shallow sections of the pond, at or near the water surface, the dime-sized flower buds of spatterdock appeared nearly ready to blossom. At this point in time it seemed that the terrestrial plants were a bit ahead of the aquatic species in terms of leaf and flower development.

Small schools of fish in the five- to twelve-inch range darted everywhere, and most of the pond’s shallow bottom was dotted with the conical excavations of fish nests, both sunfish and bass species. After using their fins to fan away the thin layer of organic matter and expose the pond’s sandy bottom, eggs are laid and fertilized in dinner plate-sized depressions in the sand. The adults stand guard nearby to give chase to would-be egg eaters until the eggs hatch.

Among the spawning fish on hand were the anadromous alewives for which the long, narrow creek linking the pond to the saline waters of North Sea Harbor is named. Although the peak of the spawning run is over, several dozen of the silvery alewives congregated at the North Sea Road culvert later in the afternoon and put on a spectacular show of their swimming prowess and agility.

A number of different piscivores were on hand to reap the pond’s seasonal bounty of fish. These include osprey, black-crowned night herons, great egrets, and double-crested cormorants. Each has its own unique fishing technique or, in the case of the heron, a unique time of day to fish. Osprey attack from the air, cormorants from underwater, while both the egret and heron spear fish as they stalk in the shallows, the latter hunting as dusk approaches and into the night.

Despite the warm, sunny conditions, no frogs were heard or seen along the way. But quite a few reptiles were encountered, including several painted turtles basking on logs or mounds of vegetation protruding from the water and, as we had seen the week before on the Nissequogue River, lots of snapping turtles.

The pond level was a bit low for this time of the year, and our vernal pools are very dry considering that it’s early May. Low water among the latter habitats may pose a challenge for many of our vernal pool breeders who must metamorphose from their aquatic larval stage before the pools completely dry out, a race that they will lose in some years.

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