Friday, January 28, 2011

seashell mollusks 101

abandoned seashell homes of mollusks. found on sanibel island, january, 2011.
to start, a little conchology (the collection and study of mollusks and seashells) for you today. pictured here is a small sample of the shells i found on our trip to the island. starting at the top and going clockwise: small horse conch, (greek for shell, pronounced konk), two carrier shells, fighting conch, alphabet cone, banded tulip, sanibel drill, calico scallop, miniature lightning whelks, lettered olive, lightning whelk, banded tulip. in the middle is a delicate white fig.

throughout time, these exquisite shells have had many uses. they have been utilized as art, jewelry, money, buttons, ink, road gravel, and in chicken feed (the calcium carbonate makes stronger egg shells).

the shells are created by secretions from the mantle, the part of the animal's body just under the shell. the mollusk shell is made of calcium carbonate and a little protein. there are no cells in a seashell. the animal's shell house needs to be constantly enlarged to accomodate growth. the shell grows from the bottom up; the newest part of the shell is around the opening where the little guy pokes out. with absolute precision, the shell is constantly added on to and repaired.*

the mollusks who originally inhabited these beautiful shell homes mostly float around in ocean currents, sometimes for hundreds of miles, or they scoot around on the ocean floor. they are eaten by other animals like starfish. some are taken by fishermen. others end up on the beach, and if they are not eaten or do not dry out in the sand, they will wash back out to sea and live another day. to most people mollusks are rather unattractive and sluglike, but once you get used to them i personally think they are cute. in january on sanibel there are more fighting conchs on the beach than people. it can get a tiny bit smelly at the trash line (made up not of garbage, but of mostly sea debris like seaweed, dead crabs and starfish, and thousands of living and empty shells at the high tide mark), especially after a storm.

three body parts are found in a mollusk: the head, the viseral mass, and the foot, which is the muscular end of the body. at the open end of a single shell mollusk (a univalve) the foot can pull in and seal the shell up tight, like a door, against predators. by closing the opening the mollusk also stays moist. without moisture the mollusk will die. this muscle also enables the mollusk to move. mollusks leap (florida fighting conchs are completely docile, but they can leap, so they can appear a bit aggressive, hence the name), hop, pull and dig into the sand.* what sturdy little creatures!

the japanese (who eat absolutely anything from the sea), the french (who love their tiny univalve periwinkle seafood), the italians (who have their specialty dish scungilli marinara made with knobbed whelk) and the caribbean islanders (whose delicacy is the meaty queen conch) seem to eat the most variety of univalve mollusks. if you able to deal with their looks and texture, almost all mollusks can be eaten, but some are tastier than others. of course the most popular ones are the yummy bivalves commonly found in restaurants: clams, mussels, and oysters. ed and i ate some of the biggest, freshest oysters we have ever had on sanibel. delicious!

*this information found in man and and oceanic

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

hungry birds

brown pelicans in the morning. sanibel island, january, 2011.
ok, so now the days on sanibel start to flow together in my mind. no more day 1, day 2. etc. the excruciating schedule of events during our time on the island (long walks on the beach, staring at the ocean, observing the birds, writing in my little notebook, more long walks, shelling, swimming, hypnotic looking at and listening to the sea, more bird get the idea of how hectic things were) has made it impossible to remember exactly what happened on what day. therefore i will lead you through the island's delights as they come to me.

early one morning it started out rather chilly (50 degrees! ha! freezing, right? wait until i tell you what the temperature is like in maine-stay tuned!) and windy, and on that morning more pelicans than usual were engaged in a feeding frenzy. they dove into the ocean and flew away with mouths full of fish, only to return again to gorge themselves some more. trying to photograph the fast movements of the pelicans in flight was difficult. i tried, but not with much success.

later in the morning sandpipers in the surf and tropical ibises in the dune sunflowers were enjoying their own feasts. all these birds were so focused on devouring food they hardly looked up, and allowed me to get quite close. i guess they figured get it while the gettin's good.

Friday, January 21, 2011

more day 3: albert the alligator

enjoying the sunshine on the golf course. sanibel island, january, 2011. photo by kevin mcaleer.
this lovely fellow, albert the alligator, did not really want to be bothered on the day kevin encountered him. kevin was out playing golf on our third day on sanibel. as he was walking to pick up his golf ball, he didn't notice the gator over to the side in the grass. luckily some other golfers did see the big beast and shouted to kevin watch out for the alligator! heart pounding, kevin stopped in his tracks, pulled out his cell phone, and took this picture as the animal headed toward the water. seconds later the startled gator was gone. (you wouldn't think big alligators move fast, but they do.) albert slid silently into the depths of the pond, undoubtedly a bit miffed that his nap had been so rudely interrupted. kevin played golf a couple times on the island, but he never saw albert again. maybe next year....

wishing all of you a nice (frigid) sunshine filled (if not meteorologically, then at least in your soul) weekend!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

sanibel island: day 3

before sunrise today i was the only person on the beach. i could barely see anything. the tide was fairly low, and as i was slowly wading in the warm gulf i suddenly saw a dark object in the water. was it a fish or a piece of flotsam? even better! it turned out to be the best seashell i have ever found....a perfect 10 inch horse conch shell without a mollusk inside. (on sanibel it is prohibited to take any shell with a live animal. i ask you, who could ever do that, kill a mollusk and take its home?) 

the conch was covered in brown seaweedy gunk and smelled like a combination of an outhouse and a sewer, but after a couple soakings in bleach and water, and a little scrubbing, it smelled clean, and its nice white and tan lines and sprinkling of barnacles were gleeming. best of all, back here in maine i can put the conch up to my ear and remember the sound of the warm blue gulf as i look out the window at a frozen white sea of snow....and more snow is on its way.....

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

sanibel island: day 2

 view of the rising sun through our bedroom window. sanibel island, january, 2011.
a glorious dawn lured me out of bed and onto the beach by 6:45. i had left the curtains open the night before, and i would definitely continue to do so, because this is the scene that greeted me every morning while i was still lying in bed. there was no wind; the air was warm and moist as i made my way downstairs, crossed a short stretch of lawn, hopped down a couple steps onto the beach, and then dug my toes in the sand.

the beach was practically empty. every morning at daybreak i found myself here, alone (the rest of the gang were still asleep upstairs), wandering along an almost deserted gulf for an hour or so. solitude is a lovely thing. your thoughts are given a chance to expand in uninterrupted silence. but really you aren't alone at all in such a place, and to be completely truthful nor is it always silent, with brown pelicans (only somewhat noisy when they roost and make their nests in trees during the march and april breeding seson), gulls (the really noisy residents of the island), terns, dolphins, sandpipers, plovers, starfish, crabs, sea cucumbers, and mollusks to keep you company.

later in the morning it would start to rain, and the rain would continue for most of the day, the only rainy day we had on the island. it stayed delightfully balmy and thundered intermittently. at one point, while i was sitting on the porch, it was difficult to distinguish between the distant thunder and the thrumming of the waves. the sound of the surf transformed into a sweet lullaby at night. my head would rest on the pillow, the droning of the whooshing sea would fill my ears, and i would be gently, slowly, transported into my dreams....

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

sanibel island: day 1

miles of seashell covered beach outside our door. sunset on the gulf of mexico, january, 2011.
there is florida, and then there is the other florida, namely, sanibel island. we arrived on sun-soaked sanibel a few hours before sunset. sanibel is a place unto itself. we are familiar with island life in maine (we have so many of them!) - quiet, unhurried, simple, existing apart from the rest of the hustle and bustle of life on the mainland. so it is on sanibel.

the tallest buildings on the island are four stories high, and there are just a few of those. one small grocery store and a few mom and pop markets supply the locals and tourists with needed provisions. the grocery store is hidden under dense shady tropical growth, and along the short path leading to the entrance there is a little courtyard with a bubbling fountain and squawking parrots.

sanibel shops and restaurants are clustered in what might be characterized as mini malls, but they are oh-so-quaint. little white and pastel colored wooden buildings on different levels, connected by stairs and decks, are nestled at different angles (never just parallel to the road) in lovely landscaping displaying palms and flowers and tiny ponds interspersed with winding pathways and an occasional small wooden bridge over the water.

there are no traffic lights on sanibel. two "main" roads bisect the island into north and south - periwinkle way and sanibel-captiva road. the rest of the island's few roads require very leisurely driving speeds. ha, you are forced to just RELAX behind the wheel. the northern part of sanibel island is almost entirely national wildlife refuge. we will visit the j.n. "ding" darling refuge in another post. more reading tomorrow. see you then!

Friday, January 14, 2011

settling into winter

just arrived back in maine. the holidays seem like they were ages ago. we have now settled into deepest darkest wintertime. (but be happy because the days are getting longer even if it doesn't seem like it quite yet.) i hope to bring you some pictures of warm sand and seas in a few days. until then, have a nice weekend and stay toasty....