Today was a bright and sunny day here on Long Island and I found myself drawn to the local mill pond to see if I could find an apex predator.
Most really recoil at that word: predator. It brings up visions of death and fear and destruction, but in Gaia’s garden, here within the many ecosystems she supports in our biological world, the apex predator is a sign of health and well-being.
I could not be more excited to see that apex predators are returning to Long Island, but I guess first I need to explain a bit about natural ecosystems and what an apex predator actually is before I share why their return would excite me as a life long student of biology.
Biological Ecosystems in a Nut Shell
In any biological ecosystem, there are organisms that harvest sunlight and convert it into energy, fixing that energy as carbohydrates and sugars within the cell structures that they are built out of. Those organisms generally contain chlorophyll and we would recognize them as members of the plant kingdom.
Some of them are as tiny as a single cell and others as massive as a giant sequoia, but all stand as the first line of welcome to the energy of the sun as it blesses Gaia with light and with energy.
The next level of organism within the ecosystem is the herbivore, and this layer is expanded exponentially in variety from the plant level and the symbiotic level that combines both plant and animal characteristics, such as lichens.
Herbivorous organisms can belong to any non-plant biological classification, such as bacteria, insect, amphibian, reptile, fish, bird or mammal. All of Gaia’s animal kingdoms are represented in the herbivore classification and they all partake in the bounty of the plant kingdom directly, converting plant sugars for energy and to build their own body tissues.
The next level of the ecosystem food chain, which converts plant energy indirectly through the ingestion of herbivorous organisms is the carnivore, and those that consume both plants and animals are omnivores. Both groups are considered predators, and exist in all of Gaia’s animal kingdoms but their population numbers are exponentially smaller than that of herbivores.
Collectively, herbivores, carnivores and omnivores provide the food source for the small population of apex predators at the very top of the food chain in any given ecosystem.
Ecosystem Balance – One Hand Washes the Other
Each level of a balanced ecosystem feeds the other up the chain, but there is also constant interaction down the chain as well. In a year with good rain and weather, producing lush plant life, the herbivore population expands and so does the predatory population.
The predator population keeps the herbivore population in check so that the plant population is not over grazed. All organisms are supported in this delicate balance and the biological imperative of procreation, or passing down the immortal molecules of DNA for each species is the ultimate goal of these healthy ecosystems.
Ecosystem Imbalance – Insertion and Removal Creates Stress
Ecosystems have developed over time in the many and varied natural landscape of Gaia, and completely different organisms can populate the same ecosystem in different parts of the world.
Native organisms have grown to depend on each other over a long period of time, evolving together and developing ways to grow in population harmony, each subtly guiding the optimal species number through an interchange of resources.
When we introduce an alien species into a native ecosystem, many of the natural checks and balances that keep the population at optimal levels are put in jeopardy. Most alien plants cannot be ingested by native herbivores and thus grow rampant, threatening the native plants that support the lower level of the local food chain.
Alien herbivores are often able to out compete natives for resources, and without the predators that kept them in check in their own native ecosystem, they can easily decimate the once perfectly balanced environment that supported the organisms that evolved together.
Other factors, such as habitat reduction, the inhibition of naturally occurring climate cycles and the introduction of industrial chemicals and fertilizers create additional imbalance that can cause the once strong ecosystem to collapse.
While we think of predators as being the most powerful organisms, they are actually the most fragile when it comes to ecosystem imbalance. They are the first to disappear from an area that is exhibiting ecological stress.
The Decline of the Mill Pond – Nature Departs the Landscape
I moved to Long Island from Brooklyn in 1969, settling with my family on the North Shore, with its many beaches and bays lining the shores of Long Island Sound.
We were a sailing family and spent much time in the summer boating along the length of the island. I have specific memories of the water being dark, murky and smelling of sewage and chemicals. The further east we went, the better the water and air got as we approached the open Atlantic Ocean, but as children we would lean over the edge of the boat and count the dead fish floating to the surface as we entered the harbor to moor our boat.
Few fishermen or baymen were permitted to commercially harvest fish or other seafood, such as clams, mussels or oysters, as the water and mollusk beds were contaminated with human and industrial waste and the subsequent algae blooms that are earmarks of polluted water.
When the tide would go out, and the Mill Pond would drain under the old bridge, the surface of the water was covered in white sudsy foam, the remnants of phosphate-based laundry detergents transferred to the ocean via the direct dumping of household grey water and sewage. The smell of low tide was disgusting.
I grew up with a sky that had no birds bigger than crows, no hawks or eagles circled lazily on the thermals, looking for a meal on a bright sunny day.
No owls called in the night, eerily echoing across the darkened terrain, and no fox reared their young in the woods behind our home.
Not a single dolphin or whale crested through the white caps on the sound during my entire childhood observation of the ocean.
There were many things that contributed to the loss of wildlife on Long Island and the complete disappearance of apex predators, such as raptors and fox from the food chain. Habitat loss, DDT and other pesticides, phosphates, heavy metals, industrial and household waste, leaded gas and aerosol emissions, among other more subtle factors created a vortex of destruction in the natural world.
It was beyond our comprehension growing up that wildlife, beyond the occasional squirrel or blue jay could exist in close proximity to humans in a suburban environment, and while I can only recount my own experiences, I am almost certain the same ecosystem imbalance and species loss was repeating itself across the world in the late 1960’s and 70’s.
Standing For the Environment on Long Island and Beyond
Some people were evaluating and watching, and thinking about the interaction of humankind and the natural world in our area, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart.
I will never know the full scope of what they went through in their devotion to return some semblance of nature to our area, or how they got people to listen to and understand the dilemma and eventually support their efforts, but I consider them true heroes for Gaia.
In 1971, Suffolk County, where I live, was the first in the nation to ban phosphates from household and commercial detergents which were detrimental to ground water and the artesian wells which supply water on the island. Cleaning up the water for human consumption also cleaned up with water in the wild.
DDT, a heavy pesticide that decimated the insect population which supplied the food source for lower level predators, as well as contributing to other extensive biological damage, was banned first in New York in 1971, and nationwide in 1972.
Over the years, the commercial and household regulations related to sewage and chemical disposal into our water ways have been tightened, but there is still immense room for improvement.
In the bays and on the sound, both commercial and pleasure boats are no longer permitted to pump waste into the water.
Numerous animals and birds that were once abundant across the land were placed on the Endangered Species List, and efforts were made to protect the individuals within threatened populations as well as their natural habitats.
Nature Bounces Back and Keeps on Recovering
With love, attention and assistance, things started to turn around, starting at the lowest levels of the ecosystem. A greater effort was made to create natural preserves on the limited wild land left in our finite island landscape and more protocols were put in place related to human interaction with the sound and ocean.
The water became cleaner and the plankton was more abundant, feeding the crustacean and mollusks which increased in population, thus contributing to the filtering of the water even more.
Salt marshes along the shores were restored, providing sheltered nursery areas for fry fish, and significantly boosting the bait and larger fish population. This effected not only sea life, but land life as well, as fish provide a food source for both marine and land-based predators.
As more efforts are made to preserve the environment and contribute to the well being of natural ecosystems, the results on Long Island have been significant. Seals have returned in larger numbers to winter in the calm waters of the south shore, as close to New York City as Rockaway Bay. Sea turtle populations have also increased.
While it brings me joy to mention large dolphin pods and small whale sightings in our own harbor, which is half way out the island, I personally witnessed a feeding pod of dolphins in New York Harbor, right in front of the Statue of Liberty while on the ferry a few years ago. My heart literally exploded with joy, along with all those who witnessed this amazing spectacle with me, as the harbor and lower Hudson River was a dead zone for many years.
We are also seeing significant recovery along our estuaries, with signs of river otter activity, thought to be completely extinct on Long Island after a native mammal survey in the 1960’s, in thirty different locations island-wide.
Contributing to the Restoration of Natural Balance
We can each, in our own way, contribute to the return of balance upon Gaia. Our earth mother is strong and works towards restoration of ecosystems as long as we try out best not to inhibit her natural tendency towards healing herself and providing healthy natural homes for all her inhabitants.
Simply placing garbage in a trash can instead of throwing it out the car window helps. Respecting wild places and observing habitat restrictions, such as human traffic on natural sand dunes has increased the population of native sea turtles and endangered Piping Plovers on our sea shores.
Favoring traditional and natural methods of gardening and eliminating the use of pesticides, herbicides and commercial fertilizers in my divine space of love has created the perfect home for a large number of endangered New York State native plant species that simply popped up and are growing strong in my garden.
Rare insects like the massive Polyphemus moth and the Admiral butterfly make my garden their home because I foster their host plants. A huge colony of native ground bees thrive in the drier herb and grassy area that used to be a conventional lawn and they pollenate the many native plants that thrive here.
On sunny afternoons, even in the deep of winter, I am often visited by one of my most beloved animal totems, the Red-Tailed Hawk, who makes a home in a local tree.
In the dark of the night, I call with love and honor to Screech, Barred and Great Horned Owls and they answer me back, triumphant in their return.
I am only one steward and student of Gaia, doing my part to support her in her efforts to create a beautiful natural world. Imagine how much miraculous change can be accomplished when many join together to support her.
Apex Predators Soar Again
As natural ecosystems begin to find some semblance of balance, the top predators are provided with enough territory and resources to reestablish themselves in an area. The increased number of sightings related to apex predators like river otters, seals and dolphins bear witness to a recovering marine and fresh water estuary ecosystems in our area.
Over the course of the last decade, we have also seen an increase in the population of native pheasant, omnivorous oppossum and the return of the red fox as a land-based apex predator not only in protected areas, but in the wild places between human domiciles. My heart jumped for joy one day a few years ago when I was walking in the sunshine and a large fox, with its bushy tail brush held high, bounded across the road in front of me.
I spend an enormous amount of time in nature and over the past few years have observed the strong return of numerous aerial apex predators to our area, including 230 breeding pairs of Osprey, which were placed on the Endangered Species list in 1976 and have since recovered significantly.
The Road Back to the Mill Pond
My mother and I are friends on Facebook, and in the late fall of 2017 she shared a photograph that one of her friends posted. It was a photo of a Bald Eagle that was spotted over the Old Mill Pond, the source of such sad natural memories from my childhood. My heart skipped a beat with hope and joy.
Over the next several weeks, more sightings of this eagle and then another one were posted on local social media, and many local photographers, nature and birding enthusiasts were abuzz at this potential.
Bald Eagles have been absent from Long Island for decades and the number of active breeding pairs and nesting sights for this area, the largest island associated with the continental United States, at this time was well under ten.
Well, good things where happening at the Old Mill Pond, and I think many prayers and wishes were answered when this pair, consisting of a fully adult male and a sub-adult female, indicated by her transitory plumage and beak markings, chose to begin nest building in the area. For a female of only four or five years of age to be breeding is an indication of optimal health.
A Facebook group was launched to follow this journey that now numbers over 5,000 members and a few weeks ago, two tiny eaglets appeared in the nest. The parents have been busy defending their territory from other raptors and fighting off Canada geese while they hunt for abundant eel in the pond and bring back small land prey and fish to feed their young.
As this damaged ecosystem was supported and it returned to balance, it provided all the necessary biomass to feed every level of organism. As it approached balance and health, it was able to offer an abundant supply of food and an appropriate nesting site to attract the apex predators back to the area.
They are the most tenuous member of the ecosystem, and its most significant sign of overall health.
I have visited the Mill Pond a few times, and like all the surrogate human parents and stewards of these beautiful symbols of Gaia’s resurgence, I guard the exact location of the nest closely.
To see the doting wild parents sitting on the nest and tending their young in the same field of vision as suburban homes may seem incongruous, but to me, it is a sign that nature and humanity can work together and honor each other.
Today, as I walked toward the Mill Pond, I greeted a number of people I had never met before. Everyone knew why we gathered at this spot and each had a huge smile on their face. We were all connected by a deep love for the natural world, as well as a knowing that we were witnessing something miraculous that made all our hearts swell with hope for the future. We were witnessing the rebirth of a balanced, healthy ecosystem, an immutable confirmation of the healing of our blessed mother earth.
Many were hoping to get a good photograph of nature and there were many subjects to choose from. A White Heron flew low across the water, while an Egret stalked the shoreline looking for something to eat. Cormorants bobbed low in the water, along with groupings of Mallard and Canada geese. A white swan came close to shore, preening itself and preparing for it’s close up.
As I stood with the stiff breeze off the bay at my back, I watched three Osprey float and dance on the thermals. I turned and smiled into the sunshine with my eyes closed with the spring warmth on my face after a long and cold winter. I felt at peace and one with humanity and nature. I gave thanks to our mother Sophia-Gaia for all her support of my earthly incarnation and for sharing her amazing beauty with me.
When I opened my eyes, my heart soared. There flying high in the deep blue sky was our own beautiful local Bald Eagle. Watching it fly in all its majesty, I knew just how strong our blessed mother Gaia is and how she can return to her wild fullness, if we simply let her.
Written for Gaia Scenics’ View
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