Winter beach combing on the East End

Dried Irish moss. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

Dried Irish moss. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

Winter is one of my favorite times of the year to visit the beach.

The once crowded beaches are now deserted leaving you to peacefully enjoy nature. As I discussed in last month’s column, there are many fascinating species of waterfowl that can be observed at no other time of year. After a winter storm event, you will be treated to spectacular tundra-like views of ice and snow.

Now granted, unless you are a member of the local Polar Bear Club, the idea of taking a swim is off the table. However, even without getting your feet wet, there is so much marine life to encounter on the winter beach.

Walk along any beach and you will notice a line of seaweed and other debris located along the upper section. This is known as the wrack line and it was deposited there after the last high tide. Unfortunately, the wrack line tends to be littered with trash, but if you look closely you will find some of the ocean’s treasures.

Dried Irish moss. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

Dried Irish moss. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

A majority of the wrack line will consist of different types of seaweeds. In rocky areas along the north shore, a red alga known as Irish moss will be the most dominate species. Believe it or not, you probably have already consumed or will be consuming some Irish moss today. It is commercially harvested by the food industry for an extract known as carrageenan, which is then used as a gelling, thickening, and stabilizing agent, in many everyday products.

A channeled whelk egg case. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

A channeled whelk egg case. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

A dried whelk egg case. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

A dried whelk egg case. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

Rummaging deeper through the wrack line you might find something that looks like the twisted spine of an animal. Upon picking it up, you will quickly realize what you have is not hard like a bone; rather it has the texture similar to a piece of dried seaweed.

A closer examination will reveal many small capsules that are attached to a main “stem” that runs the entire length of the object. If shaken, it will create a sound similar to a baby’s rattle. Opening one of the capsules will expose many pinhead-sized snail shells. What you have found is an egg case from either a knobbed or channeled whelk (a.k.a. scungilli).

A female whelk will attach this egg case to the bottom, in hopes that it will stay secured until her offspring hatch. Unfortunately storms often break the egg case free from the bottom where it then washes ashore and becomes part of the wrack line.

A newly hatched whelk. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

A newly hatched whelk. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

For a limited time after a storm, egg masses from the northern moon snail may also be found among the wrack line. Known as a sand collar, these egg cases are made of a combination of egg capsules, mucus and sand. The mixture of sand and mucus allows the eggs to camouflage with the surrounding substrate. Shortly after being removed from the water, they quickly dry out and crumble back to grains of sand.

A dried piece of a sand collar. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

A dried piece of a sand collar. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

An underwater shot of the northern moon snail. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

An underwater shot of the northern moon snail. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

Further examination of the wrack line, may reveal additional evidence of the presence of moon snails. Finding a clamshell with a perfectly drilled hole near the hinge of the clam is a smoking gun that the clam fell victim to a moon snail. As a predatory snail, they burrow through the mud in search of clams.

Upon finding one, the moon snail will use their radula (tooth-like structure) to drill a counter sunk hole in the shell of their prey. Once through the shell, they are able to feed on the soft flesh inside the shell with ease.

The telltale sign of moon snail predation. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

The telltale sign of moon snail predation. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

Another egg case that is extremely common in the wrack line and is often over looked because of its similarity to seaweed is from the skate.

A dried skate embryo. (Credit: Chris Paparo photos)

A dried skate embryo. (Credit: Chris Paparo photos)

Known as a mermaid’s purse, it is a black, leathery case that contains one embryo. Similar to a chicken egg, the skate embryo develops receiving nourishment from a yolk sac. Incubation will vary from species to species and in the case of the clearnose skate, incubation can be three to four months.

At hatching, the juvenile skate will separate the top from the bottom of the case on one side and swim out, leaving the case intact. Most mermaid purses found on the beach have already hatched. After severe winter storms though, it is common to find cases still containing embryos. Just hold one up to the light and you might see a developing skate still inside the egg case.

It is time to lace up your hiking boots and hit the beach in search of the hidden treasures that can be found within the wrack line. It will only be a matter of time before Old Man Winter takes a bow and returns the beaches to their familiar appearance of beach blankets and coolers.

Some of my favorite beaches for winter beach combing

Wildwood State Park
790 Hulse Landing Road, Wading River

Reeves Beach
Park Road, Riverhead

Iron Pier Beach
Pier Ave., Jamesport

Bailie Beach
2205 Baillie Beach Road, Mattituck

Horton Point,
3575 Lighthouse Road, Southold

Orient Beach State Park
40000 Route 25, Orient

Chris paparo