Connecticut has a lot of nicknames inspired by its anthropocentric (human) history — including but not limited to The Constitution State (referring to something about Connecticut being the first American state to have a written constitution) and the more intriguing Nutmeg State (origin stories vary). None of its nicknames, however — at least among those that I can find — hearken back to its natural history; and its natural history feels rich and deep. First of all, the land itself, shaped by glacial as well as tectonic activity, is hilly and even jagged in some parts; it’s very different than the mostly flat but sometimes hilly midwest (where I come from). Rocky debris deposited by the last glaciers to drag over the land adds texture and complexity to the geologic bed on which everything else had made its living. The state’s entire southern border is a shore — of Long Island Sound, an estuary of the Atlantic into which all of the state’s freshwater rivers run… often filtering through a system of coastal salt marshes first before they make their way out to sea.
Existing in the narrow band between land and sea is the tidal shore, a special place geologically and biologically where many unique creatures make a living — literally at the edge between two worlds…. and creatures who live here are subject to the extremes of both. Life in the intertidal zone must be adapted to life beneath the seawater (and marine predators) for part of the day and exposed to air and sun (and terrestrial predators) for the other part; they must be able to cope with constantly fluctuating temperatures, salinity, and structures (sand, plants, rocks, shells) that make up the environment in which they live.
Looking for cool tidal lifeforms
A shell from a sea snail — currently unoccupied
Because this beach is an estuary (a place where rivers flows to the sea), the sound gets flooded with nutrients making a very fertile base for a complex web of life that includes everything from algae and plankton and sessile creatures stuck to rocks (like barnacles, mussels and oysters) to huge influxes of migrating shorebirds who arrive just in time to feed on life which blooms in perfect synchronicity with their arrival (but climate change may be changing that).
No where are earth’s “rhythms” (or cycles) more apparent than on a marine shore — and specifically this rocky intertidal zone. These rhythms are affected by and affect things at so many different scales. You have rolling waves, which form randomly tens, hundreds or even thousands of miles away before breaking with calming regularity on the shore — and flocks of little shorebirds eager to pluck out any “treasures” that each wave brings. You have rising and falling tides, which are caused by the coming and going of moon — and a whole unique group of creatures adapted to the environment that results. You also have seasons, caused by changes in day length and angle of the sun throughout the year — governing an innumerable number of other cycles that occur here… and it’s amazing to think about how all of these rhythms or cycles are connected in some way or another. Cycles at different scales; cycles involving living and non-living things… it’s no wonder that tidal shores receive so much attention from both scientists and poets (one of whom is featured in a new biography — On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, published just a few months ago).
Whether you are familiar with the workings of the tidal environment or not, there is still so much to enjoy — including but not limited to troops of little shorebirds patrolling the beach for food. Sanderlings are some of the cutest of all; they scurry back and forth with the waves, rushing away to avoid the crash and hurrying in to search the wet sand for small mollusks or crustaceans that the waves bring in.
Hammonasset Beach is covered in shells — great piles (like the one above) are not only formed by wave action, but by little birds plucking them out of waterline and carrying them further up shore. Birds engineering the environment:
Here are some gulls, waiting to pluck treasures from the waves:
It wasn’t until I got back, looking through the pictures, when I was able to see that some of the sanderlings were banded. This means that somewhere, sometime, these sanderlings had a cannon net shot over them, were measured and banded by researchers from some organization or university, and have probably been made into subjects of some shorebird study… without seeing the number, though, we can’t say which, so it will forever be a mystery. You can see the little aluminum ring above the left joint in the next picture):
There is so much going on at the shore — so many interactions happening at so many scales. It’s not a place that reveals all of its secrets and stories at once. It may seem like just a rocky beach at first; but over time, you realize that it is an environment of extremes, an transition zone between two worlds, where resident life thrives because of unique (and sometimes otherworldly) adaptations. It is so much more than discrete units of life on a checklist; every living thing exists in a context, a set of conditions, under certain circumstances, involving both living and non-living components. In nature, these discrete objects — like birds, bugs, rocks, shells — are kind of like letters of the alphabet: you have to “know” these things to be able to understand the bigger picture, but you are really robbing yourself if you stop the learning there. Only when you see how and why these units connect to one another in a context can you begin to really get at the heart of nature’s mysteries. To me, being able to comprehend the “whole”, these units as they exist in a larger context, is what it means to be “ecologically literate”.
I had a lot of fun, but I also realized… boy, do I have a lot to learn! Maybe I will write more on that later.
“It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”