04/23/13 12:00pm

JASON SHIELDS

It began with a child’s imagination triggered by naturally occurring recognizable shapes – no sculptor’s chisel necessary – inspiring awe and imbedded in the picture book of his mind.

I should thank cartoon creators for using iconic figures of classic literature as premises for their productions. If not for them, Whale Rock in Southold may have been just another giant boulder instead of a life-sized replica of Moby Dick. Back then this magnificent geological monument became fodder for fantasy, serving to distract me from the tedium of a long car ride.

The rock is west of Town Beach in Southold and is so massive its proportionate details can be detected from the public beach a third of a mile away. Just as we humans consider the waterfront to be prime real estate, terns, gulls and cormorants maneuver for prized spots on the broad, gently sloping “head” of this monlith. As seabirds are wont to do, they indiscriminately relieve themselves there, giving the whale’s head a white mottled appearance. Think of it as a collaboration of natural forces to produce a painted sculpture.

Whale Rock is only one of many notable rocks dispensed by erosion along the north shore. According to Garvies Point Museum, the glacier that formed the northeastern seaboard more than 10,000 years ago collected and pushed these massive stones along its path. The glacier halted, forming the terminal moraines that are Long Island, and then receded, leaving these boulders, or “glacial erratics” as they are called, along the Harbor Hill terminal moraine of the Long Island’s north shore. Over millennia these large pieces of glacial till have been exposed and relocated along the shoreline due to erosion of the banks. To achieve their current placement, three forces worked in concert – glacial, atmospheric and oceanic.

Like waypoints along a geological footprint, siblings of Whale Rock can be found up and down the north shore. East Marion and Orient are home to some amazing clusters of glacial erratics. A trip down Land’s End Road in Orient will yield a stellar view of Plum Gut and the eastern sound. Directly in front of the parking area is a moderately-sized rock, and five hundred feet to the right and just off the beach is a true monster. Boulders rest at various elevations on both sides of the access point.

East Marion holds the area’s most extraordinary shoreline cluster of large rocks, which reside at the end of aptly named Rocky Point Road. Heading east on Route 25, the turnoff is just past Sep’s farm stand. Like many of these beachside parking areas, a Southold Town parking permit is required and can be obtained at the town clerk’s office.

Access to the beach is provided by the origin of the spot’s other moniker – “67 Steps” – which lead you safely down the steep bluff, itself pocked by the tops of boulders protruding from the embankment like icebergs.

The top of the steps affords a breathtaking view of the beach on either side and the sound beyond. From there the collection of boulders on the western point brings to mind Stonehenge; although the arrangement is devoid of pattern and geometric uniformity, it has the eerie feel of an intelligent configuration. As you descend the steps, reaching each of the several landings along the way, your viewpoints change and you are presented with alternate perspectives. Little by little, more of the huge rocks on the eastern shore are revealed until you touch beach and realize the formation in that direction was assembled with equal genius.

Adding to the mystique of the place, I found hundreds of tons of smooth ping pong-ball-sized pebbles from the point on my left to the seemingly impenetrable collection of rocks to the east. The pebbles were tiered in bands a few yards wide, forming paths of progressively higher elevations the farther they spread from the water’s edge. Perhaps this was an effect of Sandy and subsequent storms. The pebbles and a huge tree half buried with its lower trunk and roots jutting from the beach at a gentle plain – reminiscent of the decrepit Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes – was a significant addition to the place’s preternatural feel.

As you would expect, Rocky Point attracts both rock climbers and divers. I could only imagine what it would be like to scale one of the behemoths or snorkel around its base. Individually, each rock has unique qualities from the readily apparent such as shape and size to more subtle qualities like the types of organisms living on and around them. And field observation of a rock’s composition can provide clues to the rock’s origin, a discipline which appeals to amateur geologists.

There is something visceral about boulders. Down the road from my house is one of Shelter Island’s rocky outcroppings (there are several around the island), eponymously dubbed Cornelius Point. Perhaps the subject of a future column, I mention it now because it is most familiar to me as glacial erratics go.

I have fished and hunted among this widespread and dense smattering of rocks and when doing so have felt distanced from the present. There is an energy in these rocks that renders time valueless and serves to clear the head, if only until my foot hits pavement again.

04/18/13 9:52am

JASON SHIELDS

Things are beginning to stir in the bays, creeks and backwaters of our coastline. The movement is subtle but distinct, like tall marsh grass rustling in the breeze, and it represents another tiny cog on earth’s great chronological gear. It may feel colder than normal and air temperatures this spring support that notion. But water temperatures along the eastern seaboard aren’t that much lower than average and the spring runs should arrive right on schedule.

Winter flounder season opened April 1 and will remain open through May 30. The size limit is 12 inches and the daily possession limit is two fish per angler. The two-fish limit has been in effect since 2009 and is a far cry from the regulation-free days of my youth. In the early 1980s flounder were plentiful and their return from the deeper wintering grounds officially marked the opening of fishing season for us.

The other species we targeted this time of year was Spanish mackerel, which we caught on mackerel trees in the sound between Shelter Island and Greenport, right in front of a deserted Louis’ Beach. The jigs we used were comprised of small treble hooks strung like branches on a main leader. Brightly colored rubber tubes – red, green and yellow – covered the hook shafts. We would snag two or three fish at a time, pulling them over the rail to flop around the deck like little elongated tuna.

These mackerel prefer water temperatures in the 40-degree-Fahrenheit range and are strong, high-energy fish. Back then, we smoked them, or soaked them in brine and froze them to be used for bait later in the year. The mackerel’s fleshy white meat is full of oil and exudes a strong taste and odor, fitting the bill for shark bait. We also made “daisy chains” of the mackerel for bluefin tuna fishing in the fall. These baits had to be preserved in brine before they were frozen in order to stay firm once they were thawed. Five or six of these foot-long baits were tied to a heavy gauge monofilament leader. The last mackerel in the chain hid a hook. An experience I won’t forget is seeing tuna the size of Mini Coopers crashing the surface in our wake as they chased mackerel chains in Block Island Sound.

Spanish mackerel are school fish and can still be found around the Peconics and Gardiners Bay. The bag limit is 15 fish with a size limit of 14 inches and an open season throughout the year. While mackerel populations are relatively strong, winter flounder numbers have been in decline seemingly for the better part of a century, according to published studies of populations in our region. The line graph does show periods of abundance, most notably in the 1970s, but the population has without a doubt been depleted during the last two decades. This trend led to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s 2009 ruling to limit commercial and recreational harvesting of winter flounder in response to a depleted biomass, effectively reduced the bag limits in New England, New York and New Jersey to two-fish per angler and restricting the open season to April and May.

According to the research, the flounder dilemma doesn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of the fishing industry. A combination of resource mismanagement (the recreational fishery blames the commercial fishery for that), climate change and habitat degradation, resulting in low oxygen levels and contributing to juvenile mortality, is the culprit. New data compiled since 2010 shows mortality rates from fishing had declined to sustainable levels, however stocks were still suffering because of the other two factors. In simple terms, the data shows climate change is the main cause of a restructuring of species allocations in our waters. And winter flounder, a staple of these parts for so many years, is one of several species being negatively impacted.

As disturbing as that news may be, the current and future statuses of migratory pelagic species like striped bass and bluefish are brighter than their demersal, or bottom-dwelling, cousins. Small bass are being caught in shallows along the south shore of Long Island now. And some Shelter Island diehards are tossing lures at their favorite spots. With bait around, it wouldn’t surprise me if small bass are biting in the shallows around here. There are bunker in the water, as confirmed by our local ospreys which have been seen clutching the reluctant prey.
With the arrival of larger stripers and bluefish imminent, I should clarify the recreational fishing regulations for these species. Anglers are allowed one striped bass between 28 and 40 inches in their possession. A second bass longer than 40 inches (a trophy fish) is permitted. The season opened Monday, April 15 and runs through December 15. Anglers aboard licensed charter or party boats can keep two fish 28 inches or larger. Keep your receipt from the boat in case you come across a law enforcement agent who wants to see what’s in your cooler on the way home.

Bluefish soon will be staging their annual grand entrance down at Menhaden Lane. I spotted several anglers casting from the beach Sunday but didn’t have time to stop and see if they were catching anything. I tried a spoon, swimmer and surface lure Monday evening but had no luck. As for the limits, this year’s regulations are the same as last year. Anglers can keep 15 fish a day with the snapper rule in effect. That rule allows no more than 10 of those fish to be 12 inches or less. Confused? Basically, you can keep 10 snappers and five mature fish (bigger than 12 inches), if you’re so inclined.

Anyone with fishing reports can email me at scaley@optonline.net. Please send me your reports and photos.

03/26/13 5:00pm

JASON SHIELDS PHOTO | Karena Shields takes a break hiking in a stand of oaks and white pine saplings in Wilson’s Grove in East Hampton.

I thought maybe since winter was being so stubborn I would embrace it by hiking a hilly trail deep into an eastern white pine forest.

These trees have a softness and grace about them that is warming to the soul and quells the winter doldrums. A venture such as this takes some planning, of course, because native stands of eastern pine are rare on Long Island, although the trees flourish all around us. Their proclivity for growing straight and tall makes them a targeted species of timber companies from the Virginias to eastern Canada. It is the state tree of Maine, outshining all of its competition in one of the most forested states in the nation.

Knowing all this I was left with the disconcerting knowledge that my quest would involve a long ferry ride and drive just to walk a few miles in a pine forest. I coerced my wife into joining me with the promise of lunch at one of those en vogue seaside New England towns. We packed our gear, hopped in the car and made our way to the ferry for the long trip ahead. Interestingly, the ride seemed to take just five minutes, and the drive only another ten. And instead of north, my car compass indicated we were heading south. On the way to the trail we did indeed pass through a quaint though bustling seaside town replete with storefront eateries. We reached the trailhead in record time, jumped out and began our hike.

East Hampton’s Northwest woods could just as easily be set in the hills of Maine. Much of its 5,000 acres is preserved and undeveloped. Plots that do have dwellings near the trails are generally large but intermittent. The trailhead is on East Hampton/Sag Harbor Turnpike (Route 114), a few minutes outside of Sag Harbor. A small dirt parking area and an information placard with a trail map underscore the simplicity of the trail system — you just take the trail in until you decide to turn around. The trails are narrow and maintenance amounts to pushing windfall to the side. Hikers share a portion of the trails with bikers, though areas like Wilson’s Grove, which is a half hour walk from the trail head, are off-limits to the off-road pedalers.

On first entering the trail, one has the impression the eastern pines are mere underbrush to the raspy-barked, unkempt pitch pines that tower over them. Muted oak trees also compete with the saplings for the strands of sunlight penetrating the conifer canopy. In the area we walked, there was almost no underbrush to speak of, allowing the forest floor to display its diverse array of mosses and ferns. Deadwood in varying states of decay spawns a range of fungi that could captivate me for hours.

On our walk, I noticed right away the insulating quality of the pine needles, both as part of the living trees and as leaf litter. The sounds of cars travelling Route 114 were muffled immediately upon entering the woods. A biting west wind was reduced to a soothing whoosh as it passed through the highest tree tops, never making its way to us on the path. Even the occasional plane using the airport across the road sounded very far off, more a vibe than a noise.

In the crotches and crannies of deadwood we found remnants of snowfall from a week ago, the crystals surviving in shadows and the cool microclimate of the loam and litter. Though the wind could not reach us, the refrigerative property of pine forest permeated our clothing every time we paused. Ever notice places in the pine barrens, such as Westhampton, are five to ten degrees cooler on the morning weather maps? This is due to radiational cooling during which the ground in these areas lose its heat from daytime warming more quickly than other soil compositions.

The terrain in this section of northwest starts off fairly level. I noticed a gradual climb in elevation about half a mile in before we were faced with steeper hills and switchbacks. We reached the highest point of the trail a mile in and were rewarded with a view of Northwest Harbor and Shelter Island’s Mashomack Point to the north. This vantage point and the view it offered was an unexpected treat and highlight of the hike. The descent led us to the other highlight, Wilson’s Grove.

According to my research, the eastern white pine forest in Northwest Woods is one of only a few indigenous stands of this species on Long Island. It is in Wilson’s Grove we found the white pines dominate the pitch pines, their smooth silvery trunks running straight and true past the gnarled, wavy shafts of their stunted cousins. The grove is in a hollow and is quiet and alien. While just the top quarter of the pitch pines hold branches and needles, the eastern pines are accessorized from bottom to top, making noon of a sunny day feel like dusk.

Like many of these refuges of nature in our area, the preservation of Wilson’s Grove was made possible by a landowner and an open space organization. Marilyn Wilson worked with Peconic Land Trust to keep this part of the woods forever green.

The grove is just one of several stopping points on the trails of Northwest Woods. When the weather is more inviting, I plan to visit Cedar Point County Park at the extreme northern tip of the trail. For now, I’m content with the 90-minute hike we had in the quiet solitude of East Hampton’s own little slice of Maine.

02/27/13 12:45pm

JASON SHIELDS

Each morning when I step out to leave for work the murmur of pink in the southeast sky is a little stronger and the silhouettes of the trees gain texture by degrees. Each lunch hour the sun is higher and warmer and on my return trip home it is still beaming. We are almost free of the winter doldrums, mitigated last year by the mild winter. Coming on the heels of Hurricane Sandy (yes, sustained winds recorded at Fishers Island qualified the storm as a category one hurricane for our state), this winter delivered several frigid cold snaps and one powerful blizzard to date. A combination of inhospitable weather and too much work reduced my outdoor recreational time to zilch.

So I anticipate spring and its welcoming warmth with the intention of walking my favorite beaches and wooded trails, as well as exploring some new ones on the forks straddling my town. I don’t have to go far to find the most diverse wildlife refuge on the East End. Shelter Island is blessed with Mashomack Preserve, more than 2,000 acres of open space, much of which has never been disturbed by plow or shovel. Its shoreline rambles like a charm necklace strewn across a night table, bedecked with jewels like Miss Annie’s Creek, Split Rock, Mashomack Point, Sungic Creek, Cedar (Taylor’s) Island and Foxen Creek. On the east side between Sungic and Nicolls points several salt ponds and small creeks dot the perimeter. Similarly, a salt pond and some larger creeks and marshes are interspersed along the beach in Smith Cove and are more accessible to hikers.

From south to north around the preserve, the beach transitions from sand to rocks of every shape and size and back to the sand spit of Sungic Point guarding the mouth of Coecles Harbor. As a kid fishing around Cedar Point Light, I was in awe of the huge menacing boulders lining the east side of the preserve. Devoid of any signs of civilization, the landscape seemed prehistoric to me, as if the gulls flying above the huge monoliths were pterodactyls and T-rexes roamed just over the cliffs.

As a reporter for the local paper years ago, I was invited many times to access parts of the preserve that are normally off-limits to visitors. One such adventure involved banding ospreys way out on Mashomack Point, well away from the marked trails. It is truly another world out there where tidal marsh dominates the bulbous peninsula and nature carries on free from all but the most insidious imprints of man. The stand of woods seems oddly out of place, like palms on an atoll, but plays as vital a role in that habitat as the grasses surrounding them. This section of the preserve, named the Katherine Ordway Wildlife Refuge, is set aside as a true sanctuary and that covenant should not be violated. Viewed through binoculars from a boat is the most sensible way to enjoy this outer region.

The north shore of Mashomack is where man and nature mix, each comfortable with the boundaries established by the other. Less than 10 private residences are amassed between Cedar Island and Foxen Creek and most have been there so long they are part of the natural order. So, too, is Taylor’s Island, which juts several hundred feet from the beach with its landmark cabin perched on the bulkheaded dot of lawn. Once the summer retreat of industrialist Frank “Borax King” Smith and later Greek hotelier and philanthropist Gregory Taylor, who bequeathed the island to Shelter Island Town, it is as much a part of the culture of the place as osprey nests atop poles.

Today it is undergoing renovations and is the centerpiece of a water trail in Coecles Harbor. That trail includes Mashomack’s Foxen and Fan creeks, which were my summer playgrounds growing up. The latter lies in the belly of Cedar Island Cove. Its sometimes narrow passages wind into the preserve, absorbing kayakers in marsh grass and tall oaks, which create an amphitheater for the birdlife.

I am partial to the places where land meets water, but Mashomack offers so much more than the coastal attractions I’ve described. The hiking trails bring visitors through a spectrum of habitats, from the fringes of tidal marshes to freshwater kettleholes, old growth forests, moraines, meadows and the Manor House compound. The house and its outbuildings blend into the natural landscapes and are, in fact, one of the green trail’s attractions. The Manor House and each of its buildings house elements integral to the operation and mission of the preserve, from fundraising for the Nature Conservancy to accommodating interns who assist in the upkeep and maintenance. The preserve also hosts scientists and field researchers and conducts its own studies.

On entering the preserve, hikers encounter the Visitors’ Center, which houses a learning area and the preserve’s education outreach staff. Guided and themed nature walks, age-appropriate learning activities, volunteer-driven maintenance projects and many other activities are offered. And annual social events, the summer dinner dance and the winter holiday cocktail party, hosted by the preserve, are staples of the Island’s community calendar and help raise funds and awareness for the preserve’s mission.
One morning very soon we will awake to purple crocuses and dogwood buds. The air will feel different and the water will cease to be cold and foreboding. We’ll pour our coffee, look out our windows and feel a sudden urge to take a walk. With this in mind, consider experiencing the vivid and colorful canvas of biodiversity found in Mashomack. Whether a ferry ride away or in your backyard, it’s worth discovering.

01/24/13 12:00pm

ELEANOR P. LABROZZI PHOTO | Nature columnist Jason Shields looks at trees this winter and remembers other seasons of his life.

Here we are again, smack dab in the middle of winter, the holidays a fading memory giving way to the stark reality that spring is months away. The trees are simply upright sticks of varying diameters, devoid of anything supple and soft and green. When the wind blows during our intermittent cold snaps it seems they are shivering with shoulders shrugged. And those are the lucky ones, the trees that survived the rash of storms we’ve had the past few years. Our landfill holds the remains of those that perished.

In this unadorned state I can see all the blemishes of the trees in my yard and I worry about their overall health. This is when I come up with a game plan for preventative pruning, some of which I can do myself, while the rest requires an expert.

On the other side of the fence stands a whole forest of wild trees that have never felt the teeth of a pruning saw. The large, grand oaks, hickories and chestnuts overcame choking vines, bugs and lack of light as saplings to reach skyward past the canopies of surrounding trees. Around them the little ones are vying for their shot at longevity, spurting awkwardly in zigzag paths away from muted translucence toward expanses of sunlight.

As a young boy in Brooklyn, I found a tree did in fact grow there. It was a little more than half way down my block, toward 15th Avenue. But hurricane Belle came along in 1976 and knocked it down. Shortly thereafter we moved to Shelter Island where I found no shortage of trees.

Instinctually, I climbed the first one I could, a big conifer that grew alongside the small house we were renting on Gardiner’s Creek. Nestling in a crotch 10 or so feet from the ground, I reclined in my shaded haven and soaked up a perspective I was experiencing for the first time in my life. I also soaked up some pine resin with my shirt and pants, presenting my mother with a whole new laundering problem.

Throughout the years, I climbed my share of trees — pines mostly, because they are the easiest. One in particular comes to mind. It grew  in Sachem’s Woods, a swath of forest on Shelter Island just off the main road and a 5-minute walk from the school. The tree was stationed just about dead center in Sachem’s, out of sight of any road, backyard or other evidence of civilization. And if you were agile and courageous enough, you could reach the top and peer over the maples and oaks surrounding it. It was a refuge for me and my friends, so far removed from school and the town and chores waiting for us at home. We might as well have been pioneers in the Rockies scouting elk herds. The climb back down seemingly always was done reluctantly.

Another tree I found great pleasure in climbing was a meticulously manicured beech tree that resided on the back lawn of a large, old Island estate. This tree was immense, its canopy spread a good 40 feet in diameter and although it wasn’t the tallest tree around, it was by far the easiest to negotiate. In the summer, I would pierce the outermost branches, which were heavy with leaves and touching the ground, to enter a magical dome. The atmosphere inside was soothing as breezes stirred the leaves and shifted the dappled impressions of light.

In fall, the beech’s leaves would turn golden yellow and become crisp. Sunlight reflecting off and refracting through the thin membranes created a supernatural glow inside the dome, a brilliance that would make any Hollywood special effects guru envious. And the leaves would rustle in the wind, exciting another sense in the body of a boy alone in his tree world. I spent hours in that tree, sometimes waiting until the pitch of my mother’s summoning approached panic. I would peek out from the curtain of beech leaves and answer, and then retreat inside for a few minutes more to savor the feeling of being alone with nature.

I’m no tree hugger — if by definition that means one who does not harm trees for any reason. I’ve cut and split my share of firewood, cut down trees for a wage, removed them from my and family members’ properties and helped clear sections of land entirely to prepare for house construction. Christmases past my father and I would cut cedar trees on the causeway to plunk down in our living room and dress.

When I was eight, I took an axe from the carriage house and dismembered a beautiful pine tree in the yard of that same estate where the beech tree grew. In true George Washington fashion, I answered “yes” when asked if I had cut the limb from that tree.

And I felt remorseful after answering “I don’t know” after being asked why I had done it.

I still revere trees as I did when I was a child. As a carpenter, I appreciate the functionality of wood, though our appetite for it has resulted in unsustainable harvesting and a diminished quality. Awareness has spawned reforesting and a burgeoning composite material for a lumber industry that should take some of the strain off the world’s forests. Of course, that is only if these alternatives are more profitable.

For the time being, I’ll just appreciate the trees around me. Throughout my life they’ve been a source of wonder and inspiration. They’ve provided a haven, an escape from the mundane world of bipedal ground dwellers. Whether you believe in evolution, creation or intelligent design, you cannot ignore the divine beauty of a tree.