At The Edge Of The Continent

“Low ebb, high tide. The lowest ebb and highest tide… At the edge of the continent” —R.E.M., “I Remember California”

You know the feeling. You show up at the beach, and it’s a nice day with a soft breeze, and… “Hey, Dad, what is this?” And sure, it’s a crab. But don’t you wish you could tell them more than that? I know I do.

So I, the Monkey’s Aunt, and The Mjellyonkey’s Cousin have been spending some time at the beach. And perhaps you have too. And I thought I’d put together a quick bit of research so we can both have some answers to give our little darlings so we sound like the heroes we wish we really were.

But first, a disclaimer for all you bio nerds out there. I do not claim for one second that this is very accurate. Let me make that clear. I will not knowingly steer you wrong, but I can’t claim any exact knowledge. This is about having something to say, not Beach Biology 101 at State U.

That said, let’s talk crabs first. If it’s in a shell, it’s a Hermit Crab. “Is it a boy or a girl, Mama?” C’mon, do I have to tell you this? Pick one and go forward confidently. After that, things get more complex.

But this isn’t all about lying or guessing. If it seems to be what you would traditionally consider a crab, there are three main possibilities. If it has sky blue legs and parts of it’s shell, it’s a Blue Crab. It’s pretty clear. If one claw is obviously bigger than the other, he’s a male Fiddler Crab. For all other crabs, you’re best declaring it a Rock Crab. Just tonight I was snorkeling at our local watering hole, and found one of those. If he seems particularly green, he may well be a Green Crab. A Dungeness Crab, well, you’re on your own, but throw that out there if you’re feeling daring.

Next, we come to birds. You know seagulls. But here’s something you may not know: If you see a brown one, that’s a kid seagull. A teenager. Not a female gull.

If you see a smaller, faster, kinda psychotic little bird that has a black top on its head and bright orange beak, that’s a tern. There are lots of different kinds, but just say it’s an Arctic Tern. One of the farthest migrating birds of all. Goes clear from the North to South Pole. Why? Who knows.

The little buggers with long legs are called Least Sandpipers. And they’re eating either sand fleas or worms. If you tell your kids there’s worms in the sand, you’re in for trouble. So tell them they’re eating bugs in the sand!

At our beach, we also sometimes see swallows. If it moves at nearly the speed of sound, it’s evening, and you hear peeps—that’s a swallow and you should say thank you because they’re eating flying insects.

And if you see a mostly brown bird that looks like it’s wearing a black collar, you’ve spotted the rare Plover. More probably, you’ll see signs warning you that they’re nesting nearby, and telling you to get lost.

That just about covers it. Here’s one more tidbit though—when your kids find seaweed, which they will inevitably do, find the air-filled sacks, and point out how that helps the seaweed (you could call it Kelp if you like but that’s probably not what it is) float on the surface and photosynthesize.

And one more thing: Those black rectangles with thin pointy ends are Stingray Egg Sacks.

Aquarium 2013 009Hope that quick primer helps you out a bit. I’ve heard a lot of questions in preparation for it, I’ll tell you that. And remember, though they may not look like it at the time, your kids are building the foundation for a lifetime of nature appreciation here. If one hermit crab has to have a rough time so that your kid can grow up to value, appreciate, and conserve nature, it’s a small sacrifice that I think is worth making. Of course, you never want to stand idly by while your little monsters torture small animals, but within reason, it’s better for kids to touch, feel, and experience nature. In our house, that works out as: you can play with the hermit crabs, but don’t think you’re going to bring one home to certain death (we tried bringing some home and learned that lesson the hard way).

Happy exploring!



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