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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Winter Beach

Air Date: Week of

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Commentator Sy Montgomery tours a New England beach in the dead of winter and finds it’s alive with surprises.


CURWOOD: The thought of a windswept, snow-lined beach may send a shiver down the spine of many folks this time of year. But commentator Sy Montgomery says the beach is the place to be in winter. Creatures you would never spot on a summer stroll on the hot, crowded sand suddenly appear undisturbed by the presence of a solitary human.


MONTGOMERY: At first you notice what's not here. The summer crowds, the heat, the scent of suntan oil. The burrowing crabs called beach fleas are hibernating deep in the sand. The cormorants and terns have flown south. But the winter beach is far from empty. Migrations bring surprises, and storms wash up wonders on the tides.


MONTGOMERY: Here in New England, residents of Martha's Vineyard woke one day to find the shellfish fairy had come. More than 100 bushels of sweet bay scallops had literally blown out of the water onto their doorsteps. Storms give us a glimpse of life in the deep sea. You might see a big orange starfish, its five arms bordered in gold. Or a purple sunstar, a starfish with ten arms.

Along the seaweed line, you might find a sea cucumber. Not a vegetable, but an animal. It's a relative of the starfish and looks like a miniature football. It moves as a starfish does, by pulling itself along the ocean floor with sucker-tipped tubes on its underside.

Another mystery is a single, black, leathery rectangle with a set of inward-curving hooks at each end. We call it a mermaid's purse, but it's really the egg case of the skate fish, a flattened member of the shark family.

More wonders lurk offshore, so bring your field glasses. Immature loons who breed on northern lakes winter at sea. On a calm day, you may hear the dark bird's eerie call rolling off the surf. You might also spot a tundra creature at the beach, a snowy owl. This uncanny creature hunts by day, and you might spot one sitting stone still on the beach, eyes fixed on the horizon, searching for its next meal.

Here along the Atlantic coast, winter's the time to spot one of the rarest mammals on earth, the right whale. These giants summer in Canada's Bay of Fundy and show up here in New England only in winter, sometimes shockingly close to shore. The right whale looks like a huge black rock sprinkled with white barnacles. But this rock moves. It opens an enormous mouth hung with baleen, comb-like plates attached to the upper jaw. At the tip of Cape Cod, beachcombers have seen a 50-foot whale surface only 20 feet away. But it's also a thrill to view these whales from a distance. Look for a V-shaped spout on the horizon. The V means this leviathan has not one blow hole, but two.

You may not see a rare whale on your walk on the winter beach, or a snowy owl, or even a starfish. But any trip to the beach is really a visit to the rich border of two worlds, land and sea. And in the silvery light of winter, each illuminates the other anew.

CURWOOD: Beachcomber and Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery is author of "Journey of the Pink Dolphins."

MONTGOMERY: Seal, there's a seal! I can't believe it! His hip came right up over there. (Surf crashes) I mean, I'm either having a really vivid hallucination or that was a seal at pretty close range.

(Music up and under)



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