Focus on Nature: On spring lilacs, bats and horseshoe crabs

In our family, spring’s true meaning arrives when the lilacs come into bloom. Whether you have them in your backyard or enjoy your neighbor’s, the clusters of assorted purple flowers and the aroma they bring might stir up thoughts of fishing since we were always told, “If the lilacs are in bloom, the weakfish are running.” It is also at this time that schools of bunkers move into our waters.

When I was a kid, schools of bunkers were common and a huge industry flourished by utilizing them for fertilizer, fish meal and other products. The causeway leading to Nassau Point was a favorite spot for farmers who would come down and haul their big nets in a circle around the schools of bunkers that could be seen as a dark cloud under the water. But mechanized commercial fishing of bunkers over the years depleted their numbers.

Today the industry has died, yet there are still remnants of those great schools that our ospreys thrive on in the early spring. Proof of these remnants is the osprey that lights on our windmill carrying a bunker almost daily now. We can tell it is a bunker for its silvery body and forked tail stand out in the late afternoon light. For an hour or more the osprey will feast first on the head and then on the body of the bunker before leaving.

Along with the lilacs we spoke of and the beautiful dogwoods in white and sometimes pink, you can also spot huge horse chestnut trees with their unusual upright clusters of blossoms that brighten up our highways. How many of you have picked up the horse chestnuts, as I have, when they become ripe and discovered that from their bristly covering emerge the most beautiful dark, shiny nuts, which as kids we carried around in our pockets like treasure.

At this time of year there is a mysterious wonder that comes to our shore, the horseshoe crab. My earliest recollections of them was when my dad would go down to the channel with tarred line and squid and a hefty lead sinker that he would whirl around and throw out in hopes of catching one of the early tide runner weakfish, as that’s when the biggest ones come up the creeks.

While Dad was fishing, I was free to wander around and I was always captivated by the huge masses of horseshoe crabs roaming along the high-water mark. Later I learned they were laying their eggs in the sand and then disappearing just as mysteriously as they had arrived, not to be seen again until the following year. Here is a relic of 300 million years ago that is still prodding our shorelines today.

Horseshoe crabs have been observed recently coming up out of the water and laying their eggs along the water’s edge. There the eggs will stay and be warmed by the sun until they are large enough to hatch and float away with the tide. They will shed over and over again as they grow.

While over in Napeague Harbor when camping with our grandchildren I passed some time with my son snorkeling, and lo and behold, I saw this plowed gravel bed and I could see who the culprits were — horseshoe crabs. This was my first introduction to how horseshoe crabs feed by living off small organisms and worms they plow up on the bottom. Their shells on the front were polished from this plowing along the rough bottom. Here was just one example of how much diving and snorkeling added to my knowledge of what goes on in the underwater world.

Our son stopped by the other night and as he was leaving he called our attention to a great horned owl that was silhouetted against the moonlit sky in the very top of a tall evergreen tree. This was probably the poor soul that has been harassed for days by crows. Once they find an owl in the daytime they call in all the troops around and dive and scream at it until they drive it away. But this only lasts for a short time before the troops are called again to rally around and once again bombard their archenemy, the great horned owl. Here we were able to see the owl enjoying a quiet time while the pesky crows had gone off for the night to roost.

Earlier in the evening Peter had noticed bats flying in the yard. We haven’t seen any bats in a long time. We even put up a bat house in hopes of luring them into the yard but had no luck. Bats are helpful to us, as they feed on the insects that man doesn’t particularly like to have around.

It reminded us of a few nights before when Roger had visited and was heading back up the lane in the dark. As he headed down our long driveway he called back, “There goes a big bat … and there goes another big one.”
The next time you see a bat flying in your yard at dusk be glad he’s there — you’ll have fewer annoying insects around bothering you. In fact, sources tell us that each bat can consume up to 1,000 insects in a night.