Nature on the Eastern Shore

September 22, 2014

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

During a family trip to Baltimore we took the opportunity to visit some favorite spots along the Eastern Shore of VA, especially Kiptopeke and Chincoteague, VA. This is as far east as you can go without getting your feet in salt water and is a marvelous comparison with our summer home in the Blue Ridge mountains. It is coastal plain habitat, very flat, on a peninsula that lies on the eastern side of the ancient drowned river valley of the Susquehanna River, now called the Chesapeake Bay. Some animals and plants are similar to or even the same as the montane species, but others are distinct.

I am always excited to see persimmon trees in fruit since as a N America outlying representative of the typically tropical ebony family, they seem exotic. The wild fruit is strange, very astringent when green and not very pleasant to my taste when ripe. This is a good example of how fruits, which are designed to be eaten to disperse the seeds, discourage animals from eating them until they are fully ripe and the seed is viable. After all, a plant has no reason to feed animals a tasty fruit unless the animal reciprocates by dispersing the ripe seeds.

When you visit the beautiful ocean beach you do not likely have your gaze directed downwards. But if you do you may spot an extraordinarily camouflaged grasshopper that resembles the dry sand very closely to avoid predation. On the beach where the surf breaks there is a strange crustacean, the mole crab, that specializes in burrowing and feeding on detritus. It is avidly sought after by shorebirds such as the willet which here has captured a mole crab so large that it is having difficulty in swallowing it. The specialized inhabitants of the surf zone may seem to be at risk from sea level rise, but in fact the beach will move towards the land as the water level rises, and this process of beach migration both in and out has happened many times before during geological time.

Behind the coastal dunes there are stands of goldenrod which attract butterflies such as the gray hairstreak. This is a particularly interesting butterfly since it has a false head on the rear of the wings. This particular individual has a hole in the wings just above the fake head which shows that the ruse was successful in saving its life from an attack by a bird. Pools of low salinity water occur behind the dunes and these are a somewhat surprising place to find amphibians such as this Fowler’s toad. It closely resembles the American toad but has more warts inside each dark patch, has a very different call, and breeds during the summer and not the spring.

Along salt water creeks and in Spartina marshes you may see the elusive clapper rail foraging at low tide. They are quite shy but surprisingly common and leave large footprints in the mud. On higher ground next to the salt marsh I found a pair of bald eagles which are likely breeders in the area. In contrast there were numbers of falcons migrating south overhead; this merlin stopped for a brief rest during this seasonal journey to the south. An unusual inhabitant of the pine forests on Assateague Island is the gray Delmarva fox squirrel, a unique race that developed on the semi-isolated peninsula, but is now in decline due to conversion of the forests to farm land.

Travel is a great teacher for the naturalist. It shows us how different species adapt to variable climates and topography and refreshes our enthusiasm for new adventures in studying our wild world.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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