The Winter Detritus Cleanup Crews

by Mary Richmond

What remains of the winter beach is scarred by high tides pushed even higher by storms and the pull of the moon. It is littered with dead seaweed, dead tree branches, pieces of beach stairs and broken shells.

Here and there are the remains of horseshoe crab shells, bent and frayed feathers of gulls and sea ducks and the occasional carcass of an eider or loon that didn’t make it. There are skate egg cases, whelk egg cases, and lots of sea-smoothed stones. It’s rather bleak even on a sunny, almost spring-like afternoon, but the air feels fresh and the sky is clear and a very bright blue. Winter is fading and nowhere is that more obvious than on the beach as new plants begin to surface through the sand and birds begin to move.

Ospreys have begun to arrive as of this writing and the piping plovers won’t be far behind. The red-winged blackbirds serenade the rising sun and carry on all day in the swamps and salt marshes while the wood frogs quack a bit more quietly in the vernal pools. Peepers have begun to call and will soon be raising a racket.

In the woods there are fallen branches and trees all over. Winter was windy and hard, and if the beach looks winter weary and forlorn, the woods look even more so. The trees and branches that fall each year have been weakened by one thing or another. Some are diseased or riddled with parasites. Others suffer from waterlogged roots and are prone to tipping when the winds are strong and relentless. Some are just old and ready to break. As much as seeing some beloved trees toppled every spring breaks my heart, I know it is nature’s way to make room for the new growth, which tempers my grief. The old must give way and nurture the young. And that, in a nutshell, is what spring is all about.

As the earth and ocean warm up, life begins to reappear all over. Much of our flora and fauna becomes inactive, even dormant, in winter and as temperatures rise everything begins to wake up once again. Buds are fattening, grasses are sprouting, worms are once again back in our yards and gardens and birds that migrated south are now migrating north.

Mornings that were silent for months are now filled with the early songs of birds announcing their intentions, both in securing territories and attracting mates. It’s easy to notice the big birds and animals on the move but much of what happens in spring happens out of the spotlight.

Early spring is when nature’s cleanup crew grinds into action. Once the temperatures stay above 50 degrees Fahrenheit all the little decomposers spring into action. Some work through the winter but at a slower pace. Now they can begin to work in earnest, breaking down old wood, dead plants, bones, feathers and skin left behind from carcasses that provided food for many others. They may be unheralded and even in some cases reviled, but the decomposers are hardworking and necessary. Without them we’d be buried in stinky, gross garbage everywhere.

Carrion eaters, such as crows, vultures, and even many opportunistic mammals are the first responders when it comes to animals killed and left behind half eaten, whether road killed or taken by a predator. But even the most avid of carrion eaters can’t break down all the bones and other hard-to-digest parts.

Mice and rats chew on bones but you probably don’t want to think of how big a swarm of mice would have to be to take care of all the bones left behind. That work goes to the beetles, worms, and other tiny creatures that often live underground or at least under leaf litter.

At the beach there are many things that take a long time to break down such as shells of mollusks. This slow breakdown, however, releases many necessary elements into the water, sand, and air, such as calcium. This calcium in turn is used by tiny creatures and plants as they grow and so the cycle goes.

Crabs are great carrion and detritus eaters that help keep our water clean but even the shellfish have their jobs. Many, such as oysters, filter water for their food and in doing so also help keep the water clean. Not bad for an animal that lives in the same spot its whole life and looks like a rock.

Let’s not forget the mosses, lichens, and fungi that work alongside their animal partners in forests and fields. They work slowly in some cases, but all are working to break down the wood, leaves, and rocks they call home.

Our world is constantly in flux and there are cycles everywhere we turn. Life is messy and cleaning up is part of living, whether we are human or an itsy-bitsy worm or beetle. As we get outside to enjoy the better weather, I hope we remember to be grateful for all the cleanup nature does on a daily and seasonal basis. She’s a tireless worker. We can help by not choking her with poisons and fertilizers and other things that change the natural order of things in our ecosystems.