Mark and I set out to circle Jessup Neck in Sag Harbor. We parked at Morton Wildlife Refuge. This refuge is famous for the “bird in hand” experience. Mark brought a bag of bird seed. We paused on the trail while Mark held out his hand with a palm of bird seed. Moments later, we heard chickadee calls from nearby shrubs. Instantly, one landed, grabbed a sunflower seed and was off. We saw a sign that requested “Dropping seed invites unwanted animals (rats). Please put unused seed in a bird feeder near the entrance.” This illustrates how humans are part of the food chains and webs of nature.
A chain from forest, to chickadee, to sunflower seed, to us, to rats, is but one of hundreds of interconnected links of which we are a small part… On our return, while Mark took photos, I sat on a bench and tried attracting some birds. Chickadee and titmouse responded. I did not look but felt their tiny talons grasp the edge of my palm. I heard their wing flaps up close. We travel to see wildlife, and they come to us, ambassadors for birds and all animals.
Jessup is the only one of seven national Wildlife refuges on Long Island. The beach is closed for seven months to allow osprey and piping plover nesting and fledging. We saw an empty osprey nest and one soaring osprey.
Jessup neck isn’t geologically a real neck. More correctly, geologists call it a tombolo. In Italian, it means connected island. Jessup Neck back centuries ago was two islands situated between two Bays – Novak and Little Peconic. As sea level rose, sand from mainland bluffs is carried by currents parallel to the shore which deposited sand between the two islands. Correctly called Necks are topographically rectangular peninsulas of land on the south shore. The Town of Babylon’s bay side is composed of 8 necks. I live on Sampawams Neck. True necks are formed by the many creeks the flow into the Great South Bay. Other well-known “necks” are Eaton’s, Lloyd, and Barcelona. There are at least two dozen”necks” that are tombolos along Long Islands shoreline.
Jessup Neck is an ideal wildlife sanctuary. There are no roads or houses and it is isolated. There is one historic structure on the south-facing slope of the larger of the two forested areas. Mark and I puzzled over its function. It is a 25 foot deep square of cinder block. My theory is that it was used to collect ground water for early farmers to use for irrigation. Situated at the base of the hill where the water table comes close to the surface of the ground, farmers dug a hole below the water table to allow water to seep in.
We walked along the west edge and soon found a fish trap with dozens of pilings to hold up netting. Almost every pole is a perch for double crested cormorants. This dark, long-necked bird dives for fish. In China. Fishermen placed rings at the base of their necks so they couldn’t swallow their fish. The fishermen had only to pry open their bill to retrieve the fish. The cormorants choose these pilings to capture fish as they travel along the long straight net. The fish that are not caught end up and a one way trap. The birds perch to dry their wings and torso feathers because these feathers lack oil. When you spot a cormorant in the water, you’ll only see its neck and head. Its body floats just beneath. Watching a cormorant take off is fun. They have to make a running start flapping their webbed feet quickly. I found a dead cormorant and was able to examine its’ bill up close. The upper mandible has a sharp, long pointed bill to hold a fish firmly. I’ve seen them swallow whole fish. A photo of this essay accompanies the scene we saw.
Mark is an accomplished photographer and recorded many spectacular scenes. I use the word spectacular because there were endless views. We crossed to the east side to view bright sunshine Novac Bays’ small wavelets that caught sunlight to create a mercurial shimmering effect.
I sketched an osprey nest while Mark frequently had his telephoto lenses camera close to his face. The beach is mostly covered with light colored pebbles, milky quartz, pieces of orange whelk shells, scallops and slipper shells which are the most abundant. Footing is difficult on slushy pebbles and Mark and I were constantly moving along the beach near a thin band of sand near the water. What makes the light on the north and south fork so intense is its reflection off sand and pebbles. Oil and water color artists flock to try and capture the “glow effect” so common on south shore barrier beaches.
We began to come to muddy bluffs with views of the forest above us. Evidence of a recent storm with erosion was immediately evident. Many forest trees on the brink had roots perched over the edge because wave action has eroded the base of the bluffs and caused mud avalanches. The bluff face was laced with mall boxy erosion channels. Mud deltas spread over beach pebbles to form triangular delta-shaped alluvial fans
I marveled at the bone-like trunks of dead cedar trees that were toppled. Sunlight bleaches wonderful grain in the trunks. Roots remind me of late comedian Phyllis Diller’s hair style – frizzed out in all directions. I cut through the forest to find huge, volcano-shaped ant hills, some of which were over 3 feet cones. Thank goodness these mounds are the only condos here.
Finally we reached the apex of the neck. The beach thinned eventually to become covered with water. All along our walk, the shallows had a slight aquamarine tint. Generally, the water is quite clear not having sediment stirred up by motorboats. We had commanding views from the point that almost reached a complete circle:
Shelter Island – north 2 miles
Novac Bay – directly east
North haven – east 2 ½ miles
Cedar Point on Little Hog Neck ½ mile NW
Southold Bay – 2 miles – N
Shelter Island Bay 2 miles NW
North Sea 5 miles SW
Little Peconic Bay – directly west
Robbins Island – five miles west
Nassau Point – 5 miles west
North Sea – 5 miles SW
Where else could I find some many geographic points from one spot. Mark’s GPS helped us find out where we are. Philosopher Thomas Berry said “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” From the point of Jessup Neck, “I am only one small part of nature” I often remember Albert Einstein’s epitaph on his grave marker.
We had to tip toe past a marsh as the rising tide flowed in. Mark pointed out a fleet of fiddler crabs. Passing some tiny 3 foot red cedar trees, I knelt and patted them, the next generation. What a glorious day outdoors in a wondrous place – Jessup Neck