1998 Biology Field Experience: The Northeast  


We set out on May 26 on a 2-week, 4,000+ mile odyssey to explore the flora and fauna of the Northeastern United States and Maritime Canada. Five souls and a lot of equipment were packed into an all-wheel drive GMC Safari minivan. We had everything we needed for our trip except for  Jesus hats and a Maine Gazetteer.

The long drive east:


We got a late start that first day, and it threw off our schedule from the start. We had planned to see Hawk Mountain (even after finding out that the hawk migration there is in the fall, not the spring), and the Rodale Research Farm, both of which are in eastern Pennsylvania. By the time we got to the area, however, it was clear that we didn’t have time to do justice to either of those sites. So, we pressed on.

Our only real educational stop that first day was to Sideling Hill, a road cut in Maryland where Interstate 68 cuts through a mountain. I guess they were so impressed when they were done they had to put up a visitor site. In any event, we got a good view of the geological phenomenon known as a syncline, where the mountain building process has folded the hill downward:


Sarah, the only student along on the trip, got to break in her notebook. Well, we kept on driving. We had a hard choice. Anywhere we stopped now would have us driving towards New York in the morning, just in time for rush hour. We pushed on, driving around New York to Connecticut, where we finally found a hotel.

Day 2 – To the Cape!

We got up early and hit a food store to stock the cooler, then enjoyed a picnic breakfast at a roadside rest in Rhode Island – our eighth state, and it was the morning of only our second day. We drove along the coast, crossing into Massachusetts (state 9) and headed out onto Cape Cod. Our first stop was Woods Hole, the site of the famous oceanographic institute (their submersible Alvin found the Titanic) and the equally famous Marine Biological Laboratory (the MBL – site of many famous discoveries in biology). We had enough time to see the aquarium and tour the town before heading back to our motel for the night.

  Van #10 at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. 

Close-up of a lobster at the aquarium at Woods Hole. 




Day 3 – Down Home on the Cape.

We started the day with a pre-breakfast trip to the West Dennis beach, which is on the south side of the cape. We saw a variety of shorebirds, including gulls who would catch crabs and carry them up into the air, letting the crab go to fall back to the ground (and hopefully split its shell open). We also saw nesting terns, whose nests are fenced in to protect the terns from beachcombers (or is it to protect the beachcombers from the terns?). A walk along the beach gave us our first glimpses of marine life, including green fleece (Codium fragile). This chlorophyte was introduced to the region in 1957 and is found in the Cape Cod region.

Codium fragile on the beach at West Dennis. 

  Birdwatching at West Dennis Beach. 


Our next stop was the home of Norton and Joan Nickerson. Norton (or Nick) was Dr. Tschunko’s botany prof at Tufts University. A specialist in mangroves, he had recently retired to his grandparents’ home on the cape. The house was built in the 1800’s, and the Nickersons have restored it and filled it with souvenirs from their world travels. After serving us a great breakfast, they showed us the many plantings in the yard – obviously it was the home of a botanist! Nick then accompanied us to a nature preserve on the north side of the middle cape. Here he showed us the various parts of a salt marsh, how to determine where the salt and freshwater parts of the marsh meet by looking at the plants, and explained the ecology of the sand dunes. We then moved onto the beach for more beachcombing. We found horseshoe crabs (both dead and alive), a variety of shorebirds, and some crabs. While we were there, local schoolchildren came through with their usual enthusiasm. With his normal enthusiasm, Nick began explaining the seashore and the dunes to the children; helping them dig up the roots of the dune grasses and showing them why they should remove their shoes lest they damage the fragile roots of the dune grasses. Candace, our ‘graduate’ student and Sarah went for a swim in what was likely to be the warmest water we would encounter until we crossed back over the Ohio River. As we headed back across the dunes, the sand, remarkably cool near the shore, turned incredibly hot. You could tell who the native was in our group. As we scampered madly to get back to the boardwalk where we could again don our shoes, Nick strolled casually along, pointing out some of the more interesting plants.
From the beach, Nick took us to Stony Brook to see the alewife (herring) run. It was pretty much over this late in the season, but we did get to see a few – and watch some gulls trying to catch some of the remaining fish as they worked their way up a stone "fish ladder" to get to the shallow headwaters to spawn. We dropped Nick off at his house, and headed on to the Cape Cod National Seashore. At the bookstore we made several good finds. We got several of the Mac’s Field Guide series – laminated cards with pictures of northeastern coastal birds, fish, and invertebrates. I also found a copy of my friend Scott Weidensaul’s book Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year a month by month guide to natural events, New England and New York. The book proved valuable in plotting (or deciphering) our later wanderings. We then moved on to the Coast Guard beach. We didn’t see a lot of wildlife here, but spent a relaxing time on the beach watching the surf.    

  The fish ladder at Stony Brook on Cape Cod. 

  A Herring Gull waits for herring . 


  Surf's up on Coast Guard Beach at Cape Cod National Seashore. 


It had been a full day, but there was more to come. Sarah’s grandmother had invited us to a barbecue at her home in Bourne, so we got our second excellent free meal of the day. Finally, we pushed on to Plymouth and the Sleepy Pilgrim Motel.


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