In air and in mud, the critters emerge at salt marsh

Welcome to the fourth in our series tracking the changing seasons at a New York City salt marsh, a project that began with our March 26 visit to a wetland in northeastern Queens.

tent caterpillers

Beauty and yuck – Apple trees, in blossom and playing host to tent caterpillers (center). (Photos by Len Maniace)

By Len Maniace

The emergence of living things rooted in soil have dominated our visits to the salt marsh and meadow in Alley Pond Park so far this spring. Yesterday was different; critters that crawl, walk, fly and – well, how do you describe the way snails move? – seemed to be everywhere.

It’s prime time for birds migrating from the South, witness the newcomers we see – yellow warblers, gray catbirds, blue-headed vireos, Baltimore Orioles and female red-winged blackbirds – along with the male of that last species and tree swallows, both of which we’ve seen on previous visits.

Along Alley Creek, fiddler crabs (Uca pugnax) have emerged from their winter hibernation. They sit at entrances to their mud tunnels, waving one outsized claw. And we spot tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum), or at least signs of them – the filmy tents that they spin in tree branches. The tents are a kind of greenhouse in which the caterpillars thrive; the tents catch the early morning sun and remain warmer than the outside air. Tent caterpillars in their excrement-dotted abodes may be high on the yuck factor for humans, but for birds they’re dinner. Also on the positive side, the caterpillers rarely do permanent damage to trees.

fiddler crabs

The outsized claws of several fiddler crabs are visible as they sit at entrances to their tunnels.

Though most trees and shrubs are sporting leaves and some are in bloom, much of the wetlands are still filled with the drab remains of last year’s salt-marsh grasses, Spartina alterniflora. On slightly higher land is the reed Phragmites australis which is growing rapidly. In late March they were only a few inches tall; now they’re 2 1/2 to three feet tall and will top out around 10 feet later this year.

Plants that were too small to be reliably identified a few weeks ago are distinct now. “That is Japanese knotwood (Fallopia japonica),” said Aline Euler, curriculum and grant developer at the nearby Alley Pond Environmental Center, who has served as guide for our visits.

Japanese knotwood is an alien plant, like many others we’ve come across on our visits, such as porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), Phragmites australis, and garlic mustard Alliaria petiolata) which is now in bloom.

“When you damage the environment you create an opening for these aliens to come in,” Euler said. And these wetlands were severely damaged. Development destroyed portions along Northern Boulevard and construction debris from the Cross Island Parkway and other roads buried much of the remaining wetlands. There were only nine acres remaining before a restoration project by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection several years ago doubled the size to 18 acres.

wetland greens

Plants are bursting out – Bottom left is burdock; bottom right, thistle; center top, garlic mustard in bloom; and young cattail plants resembling irises in upper background.

Though the city Department of Parks and Recreation attempts to control the most aggressive of the alien plants, there’s little likelihood that the wetland’s original plant mix will be seen again. To varying degrees many of our  natural areas resemble developed parts of New York City in this way – both are occupied by residents with origins in other lands.

We meet Betty Borowsky, a  Nassau Community College professor, with her biology class on the boardwalk that hovers over the wetlands. “This is such a great place. I don’t know of another place that allows you to walk into a marsh this way to see it as it used to be,” Borowsky said.

Soon Borowsky spots a pair of red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus)in a tree. The males have been in the salt-marsh since mid-March; they arrive early to compete for territory before the females of the species arrive. This was the first time we see a female, which is neither black, nor does it have a red stripe on each shoulder. “She looks a little like a fat sparrow,” Borowsky said.

In a more thickly wooded area, Borowsky stops to ask her class to identify a noisy bird perhaps 50 feet away. One student correctly answers catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). It was kind of a trick question, however, because catbirds are notorious for their ability to mimic – and not just other birds. “They just go on and on and on. They can sound like a car alarm, a cell phone ringing and a human,” she said. They’re fine mimics, Borowsky notes, but the mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) is better.

As we walk back to the parking lot, we spot some delicate-looking, reddish-tinged plants growing along the path. They’re quite attractive, but perhaps it’s the Boy Scout training that kicks in: we notice the triplet leaves – poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans.) A nearby sign warning of the danger was correct. None of us loiter.

A visit to the Alley Pond Environmental Center is a good way to learn about salt marshes and their importance. The nonprofit education group has programs for children and adults and is located at 228-06 Northern Blvd., Bayside, Queens.

About lenmaniace

Award-winning writer and editor who has worked as a journalist and a corporate communications professional specializing in environmental sustainability and public health policy. Experience includes successful media outreach for a Manhattan publicity firm. Board member and president of a community-based nonprofit. Founder and leader of a series of successful park, art and environmental programs in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the nation’s most diverse city. * Executive Editor at Elsevier, a leading scientific and medical publisher. * Publicist, Media Advisor, Social Media Manager (part-time) at Monteiro & Co., a book-marketing company that specializes in business management, economics and politics. * Reporter (part-time) at the New York Post, specializing in breaking news in the world’s most competitive media market. * Senior Writer and Editor at The Journal News/, Gannett’s daily news outlet in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. Specialized in health policy and environmental sustainability issues * President the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, a volunteer nonprofit civic organization in Queens, N.Y. Leader of its innovative environmental sustainability programs, including the Green Agenda for Jackson Heights.
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