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Sep 23, 2019 1:25 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

In The Field With Master Teachers

A group of master teachers from Long Island studying the flora and fauna of the Sebonac Creek salt marsh. JENNIFER KELLER
Sep 24, 2019 9:05 AM

Last Sunday, I met a group of “Master Teachers” to share some ideas and information about taking students on a field trip to study beach, dune and salt marsh ecology. The Master Teacher program was established in New York State to provide teachers an opportunity for professional development through collaborating with colleagues and other professionals, with the goal of becoming better teachers.We set off in kayaks from the end of Sebonac Inlet Road and paddled with the outgoing tide into Peconic Bay, crossing a strong eddy line as we turned toward the southwestern point of Tern Island. Stopping in the counter current, or back eddy — formed as the tidal current squeezed through the narrow inlet, picking up velocity, and then slowed down as it continued into the wide bay — we discussed the notion of a “teachable moment” that was not part of the original lesson plan.

This was an excellent opportunity to discuss a basic physics principle related to fluids encountering an obstacle and creating areas of high and low pressure, and could be applied to the lift of wings on an airplane and sails on a boat. It’s also a great opportunity to let students challenge themselves and have fun paddling along the eddy line.

We’d already had another “teachable moment” before setting off. As we carried boats and gear to the water’s edge, several monarch butterflies flew by on a southwesterly course, the start of the fall migration to their overwintering areas in Mexico.

The next stop covered some of the plants that dominate the beach and dune plant community, but first we discussed the physical challenges of this habitat that the resident flora and fauna must adapt to: the sandy, nutrient poor soil that does not retain water well; wind laden with airborne salt particles; tides and storms inundating a portion of the beach with saltwater; and strong winds moving the sandy substrate around, piling it up in some areas and removing it from others.

These physical characteristics shape the “neighborhood” and are both major factors in determining what can survive there and what adaptations the flora and fauna are required to possess. The dominant flora either had succulent leaves for storing water (sea rocket and seaside goldenrod), an extremely prostrate growth form to minimize desiccation by wind (seaside spurge), or leaves with accordion-like ribs that seal off leaf pores (stomata) to minimize water loss on hot, dry, windy days (American beachgrass). Many of these adaptations are shared by other water-stressed plant communities in the desert and alpine areas.

All of the plants found growing seaward of the dune were annuals that did not have to survive the rigors of winter storms in the dynamic upper beach zone. And where were the resident animals? Other than birds and a very well camouflaged grasshopper called the sand locust, the major residents of the upper beach and toe of the dune were avoiding the daytime heat in their underground burrows — Fowler’s toads, sand hoppers, ghost crabs, ant lions and wolf spiders — and all would be out foraging at night.

I’ve found that students remember the names of the flora and fauna best when they can link it to an interesting aspect of their life history. And every organism has a “Gee, whiz … that’s incredible!” aspect to their lives.

Before leaving the beach, we took a close look at several wildlife tracks nearby, and discussed how to best develop this important and fun naturalist observation skill. First, take in the big picture: what type of habitat is it in? Second, how is it moving through the landscape? Is it traveling in the open, zig-zagging to maximize cover, following along the edge of the water, or taking the easiest route by moving along a path?

Next, look carefully at the trail “pattern.” What is the distance between footprints (stride) versus the distance between left and right feet (straddle)? A long-legged creature, like a deer or fox, will have a relatively large stride and short straddle, while that of a box turtle would register the opposite. Last, look closely at the individual prints for the number and arrangement of toes, claws and heel pads.

My first field biology experience was as a sophomore in college. I had dropped biology 101-102, a lecture-oriented course covering mitosis, meiosis, and other aspects of cellular biology, my freshman year. Later I heard about Doc Green’s field ecology course, and successfully lobbied him to let me in without the prerequisites. Our first field trip was to a classic bog in the Adirondacks, where I walked out onto a floating mat of vegetation and was introduced to my first insectivorous plants. I was hooked!

Long Island is very fortunate to have a wealth of interesting natural areas that are a short drive from most schools, and are tick-free: beaches, salt marshes and estuaries. I encourage teachers to get their students outdoors for some sand and water time, and learn about the amazing flora and fauna found right here in our neighborhoods.

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