“Not what you look at, but what you see.”
Q. What do horseshoe crabs and Eastern spring beauty have in common?
A. They both make rare appearances in May. And, both need more than merely to be looked at, in order to see their complete beauty.
Eastern spring beauty (Claytonia virginica, a.k.a. Virginia spring beauty, or simply, spring beauty) is a delicate little plant. At no more than eight inches tall with half-inch flowers, this five-petaled, white and highlighted pink flower is truly a beauty. This little posy was discovered on Block Island on May 3, 2015. While checking mist nets for bird banding, a visiting friend, Kira Stillwell (program administrator for the R.I. Natural History Survey (RINHS),) noticed and asked about a small white flower that we were passing. What I looked at, I had passed many times this season, but what she saw, was a plant that she didn’t recognize. On hands and knees we tried to identify the little plant, when we could not, we plucked a single stem to ask RINHS botanist, Hope Leesom, for help quenching our curiosity. Little did we know that we had come upon a native perennial flower that had not been reported seen in Rhode Island since 1846!
The lesson is that, at least in the realm of natural history, observation is more than looking. When engaged in observation, one must look with curiosity and a desire to understand, so as to see what is actually being viewed.
This local rediscovery of spring beauty has caused a bit of a splash in R.I., with discussion about when and where it was last seen. Much to the delight of the RINHS staff, the announcement of a spring beauty sighting has spawned other reports of spring beauty occurrences around the state. In 1998, RINHS published "Vascular Flora of Rhode Island: A list of Native and Naturalized Plants." In that tome, spring beauty is listed with the following comments: “Historical (native species known to have been extirpated in RI).” and, “Status undetermined: needs more study.” A primary role of RINHS is to act as surveying agent and present/not-present information repository of all things natural history, and so, the observation of this little plant on Block Island, and RINHS’s role as disseminator/catalyst is causing the “seeing” and acquisition of more information about this species throughout RI.
And then, there is the lowly horseshoe crab, more like a spider than a crab, dotting our New Harbor shallows each summer. In May, the horseshoe crab abandons its solitary existence and can be found in pairs and groups as they come to shoreline sands to spawn and lay eggs. At first glance, an onlooker of a horseshoe crab may dismiss its homely visage and step away. However at mating time, observation and curiosity will lead to seeing this animal with new appreciation. Horseshoe crabs lay eggs that are fertilized externally, therefore it is very important that the male be in close proximity to the female when she plows her eggs into a sandy nest. This age-old approach requires that they pair-up during the highest tides, thus propelling them as far as possible up the beach strand so that the eggs can develop in the moist but warmest part of the beach before hatching, about two weeks later, when a second cycle of high tides will allow the newly hatched larvae to become suspended in the water. The need for shallow water warmth and for the water to act as transportation agent for adults and young, has led to the evolution of the phenomena of horseshoe crab spawning concentrated at the times of late spring new and full moons (times of highest tides in a lunar cycle).
It is an amazing sight to see: full and new moon horseshoe crab orgies in May and June.
Horseshoe crabs may be primitive in structure, and may have life histories that are fraught with pitfalls, but they have been on this earth for at least 300 million years, and have survived five mass extinctions. Upon close inspection of both the animal and its life history one can come to see, and marvel at, its special adaptations for survival. To observe a horseshoe crab, pair or group, is to be witness to resiliency.
This late spring, horseshoe crabs and spring beauties have provided an opportunity to appreciate the difference between looking and seeing.
Join Ocean View Foundation in the following activities as we practice the art of observation and hone our skills for more complete seeing:
June 14 – Horseshoe crab tagging, Mosquito Beach — 6 a.m.; Andy’s Way — 7 p.m.
June 16 – Crazy-as-a-Coot Bird Walk & horseshoe crab census, 8 a.m., Andy’s Way
June 16 – New Horseshoe crab moon
June 18 – Horseshoe crab census, 10 a.m. Cormorant Cove
June 21 – Summer solstice at 12:38 p.m.
June 21 – Night Sky Viewing & OVF summer weekly schedule begins