Nature Connection: A Beachcomber’s Delight

by Mary Richmond
I drew these beachcombing finds on a recent trip to Maine.
MARY RICHMOND ILLUSTRATION I drew these beachcombing finds on a recent trip to Maine.

When I was a child growing up in Hyannis, I was in love with nature, especially birds and the animals I found on the beach. The summer beach was full of so many wonderful and mysterious creatures that it didn’t take much for an imaginative child to enter into what felt like a magical universe.

The animals that live in the tidal zone have many amazing and unique adaptations. Because the tide comes in and out twice a day, an animal that wants to stay put through those changes must attach itself to something, preferably something heavy like a rock. They also must protect themselves from drying out, especially on hot summer days. This means they must have a tough outer shell or casing of some kind that they can close themselves into. Many mollusks such as snails, oysters, and mussels are in this category.

Mobile animals such as crabs can run back and forth with the tides. Blue crabs, those feisty denizens of many a salt marsh, often leave the marsh during low tide and seek deeper water, both for hunting food and for protection. Crabs breathe in water, not air, so they don’t want to be exposed to air or sun for too long. Where I live, I can go to a certain creek as the tide is going out and watch the running of the crabs as they head toward open water pretty much any day of the week. Strangely, I’ve never been able to spot more than one or two returning to the marsh as the tide comes in, but I know they must do so. It’s probably like watching the cars all leave on Labor Day. All those thousands of people showed up over the summer with the rising tide, spread out over time with plenty of room. When the tide recedes, they get all jammed up.

Crabs, like most of their crustacean cousins, shed their shells in order to grow. Once they’ve crawled out of their shells, which are usually intact though now empty, they puff up their bodies and hide somewhere safe while their new shell hardens. The puffing up allows for the new growth that will take place while the shell hardens, but it also puts the crabs in a vulnerable position.

When my sister and I were kids building sandcastles on the beach with all the attending moats and tunnels, we often came across the little mole crabs that hid in the soft sand by the water’s edge. These little guys didn’t pinch or bite, so they made good buddies to add to our moats, until they disappeared back under the sand which took approximately 10 seconds. What can I say? It entertained us, and although I’m sure it was annoying to the crabs, we never hurt them.

Growing up on the Cape, every weekend was spent on the beach, from early in the morning until dinner time. My mother loved to read at the beach and even take a nap or two. She also liked to walk the beach looking for shells and we loped along behind and ahead of her to see what we could find. While she was fond of the orange and yellow jingle shells, we were more likely to swoon over a big whelk shell with a bright orange interior or scallop shells of different colors.

The beach we went to was an excellent place to find all these, as well as some oysters, blue mussels, quahogs, soft shelled clams and periwinkles. Around the jetty we might find a sea star, more periwinkles and maybe an oyster drill or two. When we found moon snail shells our mother would tell us how they used their tongue, called a radula, to drill holes in other mollusks and eat their insides. This was deliciously disgusting, and we were always on the hunt to find one in action. Alas, that never happened.

We found skate egg cases, also called mermaid’s purses, and whelk egg cases that were long and dried out. Our mother would shake the latter to see if any tiny shells remained, and if she found some, she would break the case and gently pour the itty-bitty whelks into our hands.

My mother’s habit of picking up a perfectly round, smooth stone, rubbing her fingers over it and putting it in her pocket has remained with me even though she herself is long gone. I have a dish of lovely stones sitting on the table next to me as I write. I also have seashells of different types, sizes, and colors and of course a few egg cases and other bits and pieces found on the shore, including some sea glass I found in the ‘60s.

These days I still enjoy checking out the wrack line of every beach I find myself on. I follow the trails of moon snails on the flats and hum to periwinkles to get them to poke their heads out of their shells. If I find a live blue-eyed scallop, I check out their beautiful eyes before carefully putting it back in the water. These scallops can move, so I often watch them scurry away before I walk on.

People often ask where to find the best beaches for beachcombing and honestly, they’re all different and all good. The south side has warmer water and gentler waves so may be the best for finding intact specimens. The north side and the outer beach, however, can offer up surprises and are always worth a look.

The best time to go beachcombing is after a storm, but lacking that, anytime after the tide begins to recede can be good, especially during a full moon or new moon. Just make sure what you take home has nothing living in it, as even a seemingly empty shell can be a home for another animal.