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August 28, 2013

Magnificent Muddy Marshes


I was wading chest deep in a pair of waders three sizes too big. I didn't mind; in the water they fit just fine.

When the water is high and still coming into the salt marsh, the fishing is a bit better and it passed the time until the tide was low enough for me to explore the inhabitants below my feet. A few yards away, the water started to churn and I saw a few fish tails in the air. It looked as if a school of snapper Bluefish just found their dinner, so I cast my line in that direction, with no luck.

Many fish will use the marsh as a buffet and a nursery. The grasses and seaweeds provide excellent cover for eggs and fry and there is plenty of food, from the various animals in the mud, to the ones swimming or drifting, to the ones that live among the marsh grasses.

Standing in the water, I saw a school of fish fry trying to figure out if I was shelter or food. They gave up when they realized that I was a poor source for either. That particular school will feed in the marsh as they grow on plankton and small invertebrates and then, finally, any fish smaller than they are. Once they are large enough, they will move to the ocean and be recognized by a fisherman as Striped Bass.

Down by my feet, I felt a repeated tapping; it was probably a crab that decided it didn't like me there and was trying to shoo me away. I gently nudged the crab and it left me alone, going off to search for more food. Behind me, a fisherman had left the remains of his/her catch in the water line. An army of small snails called Mud Dog Whelks had found the smorgasbord. The fish remains were barely recognizable under all of the Mud Whelks. When the water retreated hours later, the fish were mostly gone thanks to a few hundred snails.

When the water was finally low enough to see the bottom, I started walking in to exchange my fishing pole. Many of the moving clumps of detritus I saw on the way in were actually Spider Crabs. They had decorated their backs with whatever was around to hide themselves from the hungry eyes of fish and gulls. The mud looked like a confused roadmap with the trails of the various snails, worms, and crabs. The bulldozing Horseshoe Crabs left some of the widest trails as they searched the mud for young clams, worms and tasty carrion.

Once back on dry land, I gathered my shovel and sifter to discover what was living in the salt marsh mud. The most common inhabitants were the iridescent green Clam Worms and the dark red Blood Worms. Shore birds, like the Willet and Spotted Sandpiper, would have been feasting on these worms if my presence hadn't disturbed them. Once I satisfied my curiosity, I headed back in once more.

The Ribbed Mussels that attached themselves to the base of the Salt Marsh Cord Grass were now exposed to the sun but had sealed themselves tightly to avoid drying out. While filtering for food, the mussels collected a lot of sediment, which was discarded below them. This discarded sediment helps expand the marsh by giving the Salt Marsh Cord Grass more substrate to grow in.

On my way back to the road, I passed the holes of Sand Fiddler Crabs and the balls of sa nd that they left behind in their search for food among the sand grains. A Snowy Egret snapped its neck forward into the water a short distance away and swallowed a small fish headfirst. It then noticed me and took off to hunt in a quieter area.

As I put my gear in my car, I heard a high-pitched "cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep." Above me, an Osprey was circling the water looking for fish and talking to its mate back in the nest. The Osprey probably had better luck fishing than I did. I will be back another day, for more fishing and to discover who else lives in the ever-changing marsh.

Crystal Possehl-Oakes is a 2005 graduate of LIU Southampton College, where her major was marine vertebrate biology. She has been working for the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton as a Nature Educator since her graduation.

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