Nature Notes: Little Pond That Could

Another Humpty Dumpty story

This column is about a failed plan to construct a failed recharge basin. It is another Humpty Dumpty story about engineers, town councils, town attorneys, contractors, and the like designing and trying to build a recharge basin to trap runoff water from a farm field in East Hampton on a site along Route 114 in 2010. 

The site was wrong because it was a piece of farmland put aside by the Suffolk County’s agricultural preserve program, in effect since the mid-1970s. One can continue to farm on such dedicated farmland, but you cannot build recharge basins, airfields, residences, and a bunch of other things on it under the letter of the law.

Rainwater draining southwesterly from the fields on both sides of Long Lane has been a problem since that area was first farmed. It became a bigger problem after the modernization of Route 114 and after a subdivision was created on the opposite side of the highway more than 38 years ago. A new culvert was installed during the modernization and the water was allowed to flow into a vacant weedy lot adjacent to that new subdivision. The undeveloped lot couldn’t handle it and some of the houses and lots in that subdivision were exposed to chronic flooding.

The East Hampton Town Board under Supervisor Bill Wilkinson tried to solve the problem once and for all with the help of the town engineer and an UpIsland engineering company, Sidney B. Bowne and Son. Then Councilwoman Theresa Quigley led the charge after the landowner gave permission, and the plan was put in motion. 

The project was put out to bid, and work began, but the excavation was barely a quarter done when someone from the county blew the whistle and the work came to an abrupt halt. It was the demise of the project. And yet water ran into it and from that day on the basin has remained almost full to the top while complaints from the subdivision across the street have been largely silenced. 

So in the absence of any remediation by the county, there is a new pond in East Hampton, one that is not in the town trustees’ jurisdiction and is not at all managed, but is truly a pond, perched well above the water table for all to see as they travel back and forth on that increasingly busy thoroughfare.

Over the years, I have noticed crows, even ducks, in the pond, but crows and ducks can be found in any disturbed area that holds water. The true realization that a pond had been born happened during the evening of July 21 when I attended a lecture at the Nature Conservancy headquarters just south of the pond on the same side of the road. Ironically, perhaps, the lecture was on water, particularly coastal waters and their rise.

After the lecture and discussion that followed, it was still quite light when I prepared to leave the area. Then I heard a familiar sound, in fact, lots of familiar sounds — the mating calls of the gray tree frog, Hyla versicolor. There must have been a good hundred or so, and on approaching the weedy berm on the south side of the pond, I saw them hopping here and there among the weeds. It is the male that calls. It was a perfect evening for reproduction, warm, sultry, and it had rained a day earlier.

Gray tree frogs are expert climbers. They are insectivorous and spend 90 percent of their time near the tops of trees sitting on the topsides of branches. They have one of those in-and-out sticky tongues for grabbing insects. They feed on mosquitoes, gnats, moths, ants, beetles, and the like. Their close relative, the spring peeper, breeds earlier, say in March and April. It is also arboreal and a skilled insect snapper-upper. I bet that if that same incipient pond had been explored in April after a rain, the shrill calls of the spring peeper would have been heard.

Male frogs of both species have expandable skins known as gular folds covering their chins, which they can inflate at will and which become the sound chambers, or amplifiers, for their mating calls.

The gray tree frog has a pretty monotonic warble in the upper C-clef range. It is also different from the spring peeper and a lookalike species, Cope’s tree frog, that is found elsewhere. The only differences between the two are our tree frog has 48 chromosomes while the other has 24 and our tree frog emits sound pulses at half the rate of the other.

The tree frogs aren’t the only opportunists to inhabit the pond and its immediate surroundings. In my brief time there, I also witnessed bullfrogs and dragonflies among the fauna.

The dragonflies are quick to find new breeding and hunting areas, but the frogs? Well, bullfrogs regularly leave one wet spot to find another. The tree frogs, however, are not great travelers. Could they have come from a pond on the south side of Stephen Hand’s Path just west of 114? 

Another thing I noticed about this drainage “mistake” is that this depression, less than a quarter of the size of the intended recharge basin, seems to be capable of handling most of the runoff that was causing the problem originally and was probably built at less than a quarter of the estimated bid price. If it were permissible to flatten out the steep berms on some of its sides, the pond would become an attractive feature along that well-traveled route. 

Alas, the “submarine” that inhabited the pond soon after the project was stopped — a practical joke — was not in evidence. It must have sunk!

Larry Penny can be reached via email at Larrypenny9@gmail.com