Sometimes, I like to think about what I would do if I were in charge of the world.
When I was younger, my ideas were about getting rid of things like billboards, litter, the National Enquirer and fruit stickers. Now, I am more about what I would add to the world. More trees, more open space, more science education, more affordable housing in Newport, and a bill of rights for children that included the right to go to the beach!
Every child should be able dig into the sand, wade in the water, dribble wet sand on top of castles, collect shells and chase gulls.
Nothing should stand in the way of looking for crabs at Third Beach, body surfing at Second Beach and poking dead jellyfish with a stick at First Beach.
I grew up in Connecticut, but the beaches of Long Island Sound have lousy waves, so my family usually headed to southern Rhode Island to go to the beach. You always knew when you crossed into Rhode Island, because the car would go “thump” as it hit the rough pavement. But while the roads were tough, the beaches were amazing.
My father liked to be far away from other people, so we would go past Blue Shutters at East Beach to the state-owned Ninigret Beach, and then we would walk until we were all by ourselves.
We would ride the waves, hunt for beautiful rocks and bake in the sun for hours before heading home. Good memories, but also inspiration for me to study biology in college.
I am sure that most beachgoers are not contemplating the biodiversity of the shoreline habitat, but once you start paying attention, it is quite amazing how much life is around you while you are tanning.
When you get out of the car at Second Beach you pass through the sand dunes. Sand dunes are fragile ecosystems, so the fact they are covered in thorny Rosa rugosa (beach rose) and poison ivy helps protect them from human invasion. The beach rose, originally from Asia, is the best smelling rose in the world, and the fruit, called rose hip, is high in vitamin C.
The dunes are held together by the extensive rhizome systems of American beach grass that trap and hold the sand in place. Rhizomes are basically lateral stems under the sand that transport water and nutrients. In amongst the grass, you also find seaside goldenrod, beach pea and bayberry shrubs, which all have thick leathery leaves that help prevent water loss.
The grasses and shrubs provide habitat for song sparrows, mice, spiders, beetles and other bugs. One summer, I spotted a hole in the side of a large dune at Second Beach, and as I watched, a bank swallow swooped in with food for her young.
The sandy beach along the front of the dunes is where the small, round piping plovers nest. They make a scrape in the sand to lay their eggs, and when they are hunkered down, they are almost invisible to the naked eye.
When the chicks hatch, they immediately walk and feed themselves, so watch for these small shorebirds feeding along the edge of the water at both Second and Third beaches. Please respect the roped off areas on our beaches that protect these endangered birds from being trampled.
Least terns also nest in this habitat in Rhode Island, although only in the northwest part of Aquidneck Island. But they are seen regularly around Middletown beaches. Smaller than other terns, they have a yellow bill instead of the bright red bill of the common tern.
Much of the summer, you will also see sanderlings running along the beach playing tag with the surf. These are small sandpipers that don’t breed here but are commonly seen.
While terns dive in the water to catch fish, plovers and sandpipers are always poking their beaks under piles of seaweed or in the wet sand at the edge of the water. What are they finding to eat? In the wrack line where the high tide has dropped seaweed, shells and plastic (beach hoppers, roly-polies) and flies can be found feasting on the rotting algae. Under the sand are a variety of marine worms, amphipods, small crustaceans and snails.
Probably too big for these little birds, the mole crab or Atlantic sand crab is a fascinating creature that lives under the wet sand at the edge of the surf. These small crabs are oval, come in various shades of beige and have no pincers. You can dig for them, but you have to be fast because they have five pairs of legs that they use to quickly bury themselves butt first in the sand.
I have hardly even put a toe in the water to explore marine life or discussed your favorite beach friends, the gulls, and I have already run out of space. If you want to know more about life on the shore and in the sea, check out Save the Bay’s Exploration Center at First Beach. The aquarium is set to re-open in July, but may be limiting the number of visitors at one time, so visit their website for more information.