Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Day 43: Tide race and fall migration

At seven feet, today's tide was the biggest the marsh had seen all year. I'd been waiting for this one. The unprecedentedly high water would do all the heavy lifting while I leisurely floated logs to the culvert for later removal. But once in the marsh I realized I only had an hour before the logs started scraping bottom. And the logs were many. Here's my race against the tide, partially filmed in Beavervision©.

And the resulting logjam-boree.

The deluge was intense. To illustrate, here's the main pool today vs. during a dry spell.

Throughout the day I kept crossing paths with Jim Henson's lost creation.

Here less muppet-like. A great egret's dagger bill is lethal when it comes to sniping unsuspecting fish and non-fish

It stalks silently through the marsh, searching for any movement in the water. When a potential meal is detected, the egret zeroes in, cocks it's neck and like lightning...

This individual was a pro. Not a single fumble in the dozen strikes I witnessed. 

It was an especially birdy day all around thanks to the fall migration. Geese, cormorants, four raptor species and an endless procession of tree swallows coasted over Rocky Point. It took one flock of swallows two hours to pass overhead. During our last volunteer day, USFW biologist Steve Finn told me about the non-avian migrants he observed in the marsh:

The butterflies are the most interesting to me at this time of year with their different survival strategies. Some migrate south in advance of the cold weather. Most notable are our monarch butterflies that migrate to the Oyamel forests in Mexico, where they will spend the winter. Lesser migrations to our southern states are performed by some of our other butterflies such as the question mark, ladies and morning cloak, although some of the morning cloaks don't migrate and stay to hibernate in a sheltered place such as a hollow tree. 

During our marsh clean up on Saturday we disturbed such a sleeper when Tony and I unloaded a pile of wood taken from the marsh waste (left). Finally (and perhaps sadly) we witnessed butterflies in the marsh area such as the beautiful common buckeye (right) that immigrated northward during the summer to explore new habitat, food sources and reproduce. These will stay with us into autumn until they are finally killed by the frost. The only good news is that they will be replaced next year with fresh southern immigrants. 

butterfly photos courtesy Steve Finn
Following the marsh work I went fishing with Tony down the beach from the marsh. Here again we witnessed migration. The bait fish (peanut bunker or young of the year menhaden) were heading towards the inlet to migrate south from their nursery grounds in the bay. They were being heavily fed upon by migrating snapper bluefish, striped bass and false albacore trying to fatten up before their long trip south. 

In hopes that a few migrating birds will stopover in the marsh, I decided to deploy camera trap #2 on the osprey platform. But the cradle, whose not-very-hurricane-proof design resulted in the demise of camera trap #1, required modification.

It's not overly sophisticated, but this little brace will help secure the camera during a big gust.

The glorious view from the roof of the marsh. What weary traveller wouldn't want to take a rest here?

I finished off the day in Matchstick Alley. It's slow going, but the channel is beginning to open.

High of 75, max humidity 90%, average wind (ESE) @ 11 MPH, 7.0 high tide @ 08:49 AM. Moon 0% visible.
Water level recorded at 30" mark (marsh record high). Yardstick broke shortly thereafter.
Birds seen in marsh: belted kingfisher, green heron, great egret, osprey, merlin, peregrine, unidentified accipiter, black duck, Canadian goose, flicker, warbler, tree swallows, grackle, many large gulls.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Day 42: Search and destroy

The combination of zero wind, 100% humidity and droning rain activated Rocky Point's resident mosquitos into full attack mode. They had the egret shaking like a golden retriever.

But we never abort an operation due to hostile conditions. The only exposed part of my body was my face, which I generously slathered with bug dope. Moshe, however, went full-on commando.

There was a lot of post-cleanup cleanup to do in the main channel.

Rambo's Moshe's strategy was to melt into the undergrowth, silently creep up on the logs and take them out one by one. He was nearly thwarted when a mosquito slipped under his face net. Evasive counter-insurgency maneuvers kept him in the game.

We then turned our attention to the remaining logs in Matchstick Alley. The aim was to remove them before the big flush next week, when a rare seven-foot tide will bore through the recently cleared channel. Those two monsters on the right will have to wait for the next chainsaw session.

Targets eliminated. But wait, where's Moshe? Moshe?

High of 71, max humidity 100%, average wind () @ 5 MPH, 5.6 high tide @ 04:46 PM. Moon 26% visible.
Water level recorded at 5" mark.
Birds seen in marsh: belted kingfisher, green heron, great egret

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Day 41: Marsh militia breaches new channel

Rocky Point's fourth group cleanup day didn't break any turnout records, but made the greatest impact yet in terms of actual marsh restoration. This was because the 14 resolute individuals who showed up were both highly motivated and experienced in marsh making. Our mission was clear: open the clogged channels. 

But the first order of business was removing the small wood piles. Gateway National Recreation Area wanted wood for their summer camp programs, and we were happy to oblige. After sorting out the treated stuff we sent the burnable pieces by wheelbarrow to the pickup. Clockwise from upper left: Lisa, Cindy, Broc and Rob on firewood detail.

Tony and Steve then taxied the loads to the Floyd Bennet field campgrounds. Here's Tony betwixt twins Broc and Steve.

Hurricane Irene created a monstrosity of a logjam in the west channel. Some of these logs were the size of telephone poles, and would require significant butchering prior to removal. Alecio was the first to man the chainsaw at no small risk to himself. Most of the marsh lumber contained more metal spikes than an E.L.F. member's backpack.

Meanwhile, Alex, who set the hardcore bar pretty high during his last visit, outdid himself by cutting down logs with a handsaw.

Broc reported for carving duty by early afternoon, after a full morning of loading firewood.

He focused on a yet-untouched artery of the west channel. Here are the offending logs, slumbering peacefully...

...right before the wholesale slaughter ensued.

As the sawmen hacked away the rest of us shuttled dismembered log chunks out of the marsh. Unfortunately, wheelbarrows weren't an option.

So we did it Viking-style. Here are Moshe, Sarah and Josh making it look easy.

In case you're not convinced we worked hard enough, here are a few more.



Don and Francois stopped by to check out the action.

Even the boy made an appearance. This was the first time in his whole three week-long life he'd ventured outside of Manhattan.

Auntie Aida and Grandma Violeta drove all the way from White Plains and the Bronx to deliver him and the wife.

After six hours we'd made quite a pile, here with Santos and Cindy for scale.

And here's introducing Rocky Point's newest addition, the northwest channel. Maybe we should call it Matchstick Alley. Now open for business.

Thanks to Steve, Alecio, Lisa, Cindy, Broc, Rob, Josh, Alex, Sarah, Moshe, Francois, Jonathan for working so hard on your day off. Thanks to grandma Violeta, auntie Aida, Irene, Francois and Don for stopping by. And as always, thanks to Tony for everything.

Photos by Irene

High of 66, max humidity 72%, average wind ENE @ 8 MPH, 5.2 high tide @ 11:18 AM. Moon 82% visible.
Water level unrecorded.
Birds seen in marsh: belted kingfisher, green heron, osprey, great egret, unidentified accipiter, eastern kingbird, yellow fronted warbler, robin

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Day 40: Crop circles and killi-clemency

Upon arrival I found the marsh plagued by unexplained phenomena. What you see below was one of several circular formations, each stretching about thirty feet in diameter. There could only be one rational explanation.

Then I recalled reading about these circles. During late summer, large patches of salt hay (spartina patens) lay down in matted, swirling patterns aptly named cowlicks. The dying grass, usually out of the tides' reach, stays in place and does not effect the succeeding generation's growth. In fact, it stabilizes the substrate.

I started the day trying to operate the seine by myself. This ranks high among those two-person tasks whose doubtless failure as a solo endeavor only goads one into attempting success. Fortunately, Moshe was available. When operated correctly seine nets are very effective at skimming the nano debris, especially particulate plastic, from the marsh surface.

The problem is they're also very effective at skimming the organisms that swim in the marsh. After unraveling the net we found the debris jerking with dozens of frantic killifish. Some might say you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. And killifish are legion, yes. But they're also the most voracious predators of my sworn enemy, the salt marsh mosquito. How many blood-sucking insects would live for each killifish that perished? I didn't want to find out, and so began the exacting work of picking the killis, one by one, from the net. 

And liberating them.

Those that could not be saved, I reassured myself, would make good treats for whatever lurks around the debris piles.

We attempted to scare fish away during subsequent skims by walking in front of the net. This tactic significantly reduced bycatch, and would work much better with a third person, a dedicated fish herder, leading the net draggers. In the end, the seine was worth the sacrifice.


I finished the day in the shop preparing for Saturday's cleanup event. Hope to see you there.


The Effect of a Seasonal Change in Canopy Structure on the Photosynthetic Efficiency of a Salt Marsh.
S. N. Turitzin and B. G. Drake. Oecologia. Vol. 48, No. 1 (1981), pp. 79-84

The Behavior of Fundulus heteroclitus on the Salt Marshes of New Jersey. F. E. Chidester. The American Naturalist.
Vol. 54, No. 635 (Nov. - Dec., 1920), pp. 551-557

High of 82, max humidity 90%, average wind SSW @ 10 MPH, 5.7 high tide @ 9:36 AM. Moon 98% visible.
Water level recorded at 10 inch mark.
Birds seen in marsh: belted kingfisher, green heron, osprey, great egret
Birds seen in bay: great egret

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Day 39: Lumber wars begin

It was one of those schizophrenic weather days at Rocky Point where the sun made brief appearances between light mist, punctuated by the occasional two-minute deluge. A peregrine swooped in and seemed obsessed with something in the middle marsh where the willets once nested. She made a dozen frenzied dives at the same spot but nothing moved there, even minutes after she'd flown away.

The brutal task of removing the logjams commenced today with the assistance of Moshe, who selflessly forfeited a few hours of fishing to haul heavy wood. Treated lumber impregnated with various chemicals littered the west channel. Many were waterlogged and would have been invisible were it not for the curious leachings suspended above their wooden corpses.

"It feels wrong to say it, but it's sort of beautiful," Moshe confided while standing over an especially hallucinatory swirl in the west channel. Indeed, it was kind of cool, in a revolting way.

Many of the logs were the size and weight of small cars and would not yield to our two-man team. So we focused on wood that was just big enough to not cause back injuries.

By the time we'd moved about a dozen timbers the rain compelled us to call it quits, and I returned to the shop to finish my first recycled marsh wood bat box. All pieces are cut and by next week it should be ready for tenants.

High of 68, max humidity 100%, average wind ENE @ 11 MPH, 5.6 high tide @ 4:48 PM. Moon 72% visible.
Water level recorded at 10 inch mark.
Birds seen in marsh: belted kingfisher, unidentified peep, mockingbird, green heron, osprey, peregrine falcon, spotted sandpiper
Birds seen in bay: Canada goose, semipalmated plover

Monday, September 5, 2011

Underwater timelapse test

Before undertaking my post-hurricane survey I took advantage of the 6.5' high tide to shoot a new variation on the falling tide timelapse. The idea manifested last week in the recycling room of our apartment building, where I discovered sitting beside the cardboard bin a perfectly sound terrarium containing nothing but a few dead crickets.

The tide was one of the largest all summer, flooding the marsh with the usual suspects plus a few new visitors. Small schools of baby bluefish, or snappers as they're locally known, patrolled the channels for silversides and killifish. At eight inches or so, they're the largest fish I've encountered in the marsh. A belted kingfisher also made several flybys but never took a dive.

Here's the setup (photo taken at the end of the shot).

And the timelapse, documenting one hour of peak drainage reduced to 15 seconds.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Day 38: What Irene hath wrought

I took a two week hiatus from marsh work because my wife Irene spawned a Category 3 storm of our own:

We brought him home a few hours before the other Irene hit NYC. That night we huddled in the apartment watching movies beside our emergency pile of water-filled wine bottles, canned goods and headlamps. Although our East Village apartment sits on the cusp of the B and C hurricane evacuation zones, I had a feeling we'd be fine. But Rocky Point would inevitably be transformed. The storm surge combined with a freakishly high tide could either flood the marsh with new junk or suck the old junk out to sea.

Today I went to see what Irene did to the marsh. Here are a few scenes from my survey.

The most conspicuous effect was this logjam in the west channel. These timbers were already in the marsh, but the storm rearranged them into an effective dam. Water still flows below.

The western reaches of the marsh were vast floats of dead phragmites and other debris. The surge completely cleared some areas, as illustrated in the photo below. Before the storm, the top site looked like the bottom site.

How high did the water rise? At least two feet above the normal high-tide mark, as betrayed by a rack line on the culvert. Maybe the camera trap recorded documentary evidence? Well...

She was MIA, gone with the wind. There was no trace of her in the immediate vicinity, so I investigated the dispersal of the boards that formerly sat below the platform. Most had been swept into the logjam, and there I found her, floating on her back. Were it not for the logs, she might be well on her way to Nova Scotia right now. I rushed her ashore, but it was too late.

I'm familiar with those tricks for reviving waterlogged electronics, but all the rice in China couldn't dry out this unit. The lens and flash housing were fogged, and a film of rust covered the innards. Sadly, the expensive rechargeable batteries were equally toasted. But the card was intact. Here's the black box debriefing:

After a few hundred starling shots and one green heron, the last creature captured by Bushnell was this mockingbird (coincidentally, one of my wife's favorites). That was on Thursday the 25th.

Friday was eerily devoid of life, just a few false triggers. Then nothing until this on Sunday the 28th, just after midnight.

Bushnell continued to photograph the furiously whipping vegetation until Sunday evening, when she took her last picture, appropriately, of salt marsh grass.

She'll be sorely missed. We had some good times. As F. Gump would say, she was like a box of chocolates. I recorded 18 species with Bushnell over the course of eight months in the marsh. But she was wild, and Irene set her free. Mourning wasn't going to bring her back, and meanwhile, the marsh needed to be de-hurricaned.

On Martin's earlier recommendation, I asked Tony to wrangle me a seine net to replace the laborious rake-and-pitchfork routine. Urzula and I gave it a try.

And it worked beautifully on the west channel.

In the end, Irene did more harm than good, but the marsh took it like a champ and is already on the mend. Rocky Point saw storms much hairier than Irene pass through, and she'll see many more. After all, we're only halfway through hurricane season.

High of 80, max humidity 87%, average wind s @ 6 MPH, 6.5 high tide @ 10:55 AM. Moon 10% visible.
Water level recorded at 24 inch mark.
Birds seen in marsh: belted kingfisher, unidentified peep, mockingbird, green heron, osprey
Birds seen in bay: Canada goose, piping plover, semipalmated plover
killifish, Atlantic silverside and "snapper" bluefish observed in marsh