Nature Notes: A Good Walk, Unspoiled

When you’re walking you see everything close up
There are three kinds of recreational walking: fast steady walking, group walking with a guide, and walking by yourself or with another while studying the ground, sky, trees, and maybe water. Durell Godfrey

Walking is good for you. My doctors say that. Just about every doctor says that. There are three kinds of recreational walking: fast steady walking, group walking with a guide, and walking by yourself or with another while studying the ground, sky, trees, and maybe water.

When I was a lad growing up in Mattituck, I very rarely got a ride to or from school. I mostly walked or rode my bike. There is a major difference between walking and biking. It is difficult to stop and hold on to the bike while you examine something in the road or alongside it. It’s so much easier to stop and study when you’re on foot.

That’s how I became both a collector and a nature lover. When you’re walking you see everything close up. You hear the sounds — the birds singing, the frogs croaking, and the like. But you also learn the lore of inanimate objects while you make a little on the side: You find pennies, nickels, dimes, even quarters, and, very, very rarely, a half dollar, a denomination that we almost never see these days.

But, more often, you find nails, screws, washers, nuts, bolts, parts of cars, and other hardware, and once in a while a hand tool. You also find tinfoil and matchbook matches, two items that were rare along the way coming and going when I was a school kid. I’d pick each item up and study it; there was no rush, especially on the return trips from school. I still walk, stop, and study in the same way today. I’ve amassed a fine collection of hardware and a few coins to go with it. I even found a claw hammer, which I still use to bang and pull nails.

A walk along the beach is a special treat. You not only find pretty jingle shells, scallop shells, and molted crab exoderms, but also the brown Fucus seaweeds, with the floats that you can squeeze and pop when they are long dried, and the occasional dried starfish or moon snail shell. You also find useful pieces of lumber, fishing line, rope, and so on, among the plastic bottles and cigarette butts. There was very little plastic in use when I was a boy, so the beach was comparably cleaner back then.

That’s the kind of walking I am particularly fond of. It’s good to have an older companion who knows the names of the birds, trees, and wildflowers, who knows what is native and what is alien. My late sister Marjorie was seven years older than I and was that kind of companion. She knew the names of several birds, even the songs of many. She knew when the May pinks were blossoming, when the wild cherries were ripe enough to eat, and where to find beach plums in the early fall.

Victoria Bustamante in Montauk took one such long walk on Saturday in the northern part of the Suffolk County park east of Lake Montauk with only herself as company. She saw many wondrous things: a “kettle of 18 turkey vultures” circling and soaring high up in the sky, and “glass eels,” elvers, swimming up Little Reed Pond from Lake Montauk toward Big Reed Pond — not an annual event, mind you. 

The little guys, the size of “nightcrawler” earthworms, have come all the way from the ocean depths south of Bermuda to get to their nursery of choice, where they will become dark and slowly grow into adult eels. Then, after growing up in Big Fresh Pond for several years, they’ll go back whence they came. They are diadromous like salmon, alewives, shad, and striped bass, meaning they can live in both salt and fresh water. They are catadromous, however, moving downstream into seawater to spawn, while the others are anadromous, moving from salt to fresh to spawn.

A kingfisher was hunting with its rattling call, stopping to hover in one spot, zeroing in on a fish below, while an osprey flew by with a footlong silvery fish, alit on a branch, and began to eat it. A common loon was preening in the inlet to Little Reed, exchanging its winter plumage for a breeding one, Vicki thought. When changing from one plumage to another, they don’t fly. In that case, ornithologists say, the waterfowl is in its “eclipse” stage.

Mourning cloak butterflies were about. They overwinter beneath the fallen leaves and are the first to appear each spring. Their dark brown wings with an ecru edging give this large butterfly its colloquial name. They first appear when there are very few flowers to nectar, and how they survive is a mystery to me.

Vicki also came upon phoebes and two tree swallows, both species of which are insectivorous and need to find insects to get by. Many insects, including a big fat bumblebee observed by Vicki, are emerging in these first days of April. She also came upon three species of woodpeckers: red-breasted, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and downies. Woodpeckers are also bug eaters; indeed, the insects must be out in force.

And yes, after all that walking and bending over to study this and that, in the narrative email of her trip there was also a photo of Vicki’s hand with a deer tick on it ready to bite. Ticks are arthropods like spiders, but they might as well be insects. 

Patricia Hope in Northwest has been studying ticks for several years running. She relates that thus far this year she has found only deer ticks. The lone stars, a more southern species, wait until it’s warm, but after Sunday’s near-70-degree heat wave I just bet they’re out now.

When you drive or bike you never encounter a tick. For every win there is a loss. Walk along a grassy trail slowly, study the vegetation and the wildlife while doing so, pick some fresh green herbage or a spring flower or two, and you will learn much and gain a deep satisfaction, but when you are done, check yourself thoroughly. Ticks, like mosquitoes, don’t give a darn if you love nature or not, they’re only after a hearty blood meal.

There is a moral to the tale. Nature doesn’t kid around, doesn’t take chances. What if the ospreys arrived to raise a family and there were no alewives? What if the mourning cloak butterfly couldn’t find a single flower to feed on? What if the woodpeckers and other insect eaters were want to find edible insects? What if that kettle of vultures couldn’t find a single roadkill to feast on? What if the glass eels never made it into Big Reed0 Pond? What if we humans stopped killing each other? 

Oops, we better get back to nature, or we won’t survive.


Larry Penny can be reached via email at