Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wild Wildlife of Delaware, Part II: Unguarded Beaches, Discarded Armor, and Abandoned Waves

[lacy, whelk shell pierced with light]

Near Rehoboth Beach, in Lewes, DE, is Cape Henlopen State Park, site of beautiful beaches, woods, and ponds, as well as sand roads that should only be driven on by large all-terrain vehicles (trust me on this). We spent a lot of time at one of these beaches, lying in the sun like animals and taking long walks.

The beach was strewn with bits of horseshoe-crab carapaces. Horseshoe crabs, as you may know, are not actually crabs at all; in fact, they’re more closely related to spiders and mites. Relatives of contemporary horseshoe crabs, with much the same body plan, have been around for millions of years—hence the reference to these non-crabs as “living fossils,” even though they themselves haven’t been around quite so long.

[horseshoe-crab leg and shadow]

Horseshoe crabs are important not just in and of themselves but because they’re important bait species; they’re used in biomedical research; and their eggs, which they lay on the beach, are the major food source for a huge number of migrating-bird species. (Also, some really interesting work has been done on horseshoe-crab mate recognition and mating behavior—see Professor H. Jane Brockmann’s website for more information on some of this research.) It was too late in the year for us to see any live horseshoe crabs wandering around mating, but there were a few full carapaces as well as pieces on the beach, lying there like armor thrown off following a campaign:

There were some gulls on the beaches, as well, although—perhaps because this beach was less populated by humans and their foodstuff—not a large number of them. A few strutted the shores or had recently done so:

But the majority of them were either off at sea or visible only in the distance as a multi-species group whose members suddenly all took off at once in response to some signal unperceived by us.

We spied some other shorebirds as well, and to spare you the suspense that’s no doubt been building since I mentioned them last, I’ll tell you what kind they were: willets! (I’m convinced that all shorebirds are required to have bizarre names, like willet or dunlin or dowitcher or curlew or whimbrel or godwit.)

They hurried on ungainly, stilt legs to and fro along the shore, plunging their dark beaks into the sand to catch mole crabs and other hapless crustaceans and mollusks that hadn’t burrowed quite deep enough.

Apart from the wildlife (which, I admit, I was considerably more interested in than was Annie), we enjoyed being in the presence of the ocean itself. We delighted in the furiously pounding surf and in the wild foam that came racing up the shore in the wake of each crashing wave, a delirious effervescence rich as the froth bubbling up from a just-opened bottle of champagne—and just as intoxicating. It was as if the sea itself were, with each intermingling spurt of spray, making a display of its exuberance.

Some of the effect was due, too, to the quality of the late-afternoon light, which softens and enriches tones and colors and maybe even moods. In the mid-morning, by contrast, the waves that spilled over the beach were hit by a hard, direct light, like a hammer beating thin a sheet of metal: and then the shore looked as if it were being washed with successive layers of silver.

And thus concludes my abbreviated travelogue of our weekend trip to the wilds of Delaware. We’ll probably go again, and I’ll be furnished with more stories and photographs to share. Maybe we’ll even go in late spring, when the horseshoe crabs are mating! Oh, imagine all the opportunities for X-rated-arthropod entries…!

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}


Anca said...

The photos are stunning (the whelk looks like a night lamp with a hidden bulb inside!), and your prose is gorgeous. Those bubbles? To celebrate your birthday, don't you know?

Noel said...

I love how you build the ladder of this ecosystem with your words.

Life is so busy now that it's hard to pay homage to the individual pieces and the whole as well. You do it beautifully.

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...