Sunday, May 29, 2005

Picking Up Other People's Garbage on West Haven's Land

After 45 minutes of picking up trash during the beach cleanup at Sandy Point, in West Haven, I was in a good enough mood to make pseudo-sociological observations based on garbage. For example, the people of the New Haven area -- or at least the subset inclined to litter -- rarely have protected sex and do not drink much alcohol. The basis for this conclusion is the scarcity of beer or liquor bottles and the absence of condoms. Those same people, however, seem to survive on a diet of salty snacks and candy that come in small plastic bags, and drinks that come in small plastic bottles.

After another half hour my good humor and my willingness to look at the situation lightheartedly had disappeared. The supply of other people's garbage was endless and the dozen or so people who were volunteering to clean it up could have worked for a week and would not have gotten it all.

Which is a shame because Sandy Point is wild and beautiful and we'd hardly tolerate such treatment if it occurred at a woodland nature preserve or a freshwater marsh. I became interested in Sandy Point after hearing last month that in the opinion of some the city of West Haven wasn't doing enough to protect the piping plovers -- a threatened species -- and least terns that nest there. So when yesterday's beach cleanup coincided with a Saturday with no Little League game, my son Kaare, who is 7, and I decided it would be an interesting way to spend a morning. The proximity of a skate park, which he had seen when we visited Sandy Point in April, added to the appeal for him and gave me an easy bribe.

k at sandy point

We arrived shortly after 9:30 and were greeted by Sherrill of Save the Sound, which was organizing this party of free labor for West Haven. Kaare and I were assigned to work with a young guy named Nick who was a ninth grader at the Sound School in New Haven. We were given garbage bags and a sheet of paper on which to record what we found, and sent off along a path that followed the shore.

The morning was mild and pleasant, with a soft breeze blowing in off the water. I was surprised by the bird activity (although I shouldn't have been; Sandy Point has been named an Important Bird Area by Audubon Connecticut) and quickly stopped to scan a tidal pond for birds. Black skimmers were criss-crossing the area, barking and dropping to the surface to dip their lower mandibles in the water as they flew. I pointed it out to Kaare and Nick, and Nick told me the skimmers eat small fish and algae that they skim from near the surface. Least terns and common terns flew about noisily. It was low tide and birders with big scopes scanned the flats for shorebirds. A woman said that four willets* were at the point, which was unusual, and I gave a glance to a shore bird that looked like a black-bellied plover that was not quite in breeding plumage.

Our instructions were to walk to the end of the trail and then pick up trash as we walked back. Kaare did most of the trash-picking at the start and Nick wrote down what we found, which was unremarkable. He said most of what is dumped at Sandy Point flows from the Quinnipiac River, which discharges in that direction. He told me that New Haven Harbor isn't in great shape, judging from what they've learned at the Sound School, which surprised me because it's broad, has a wide opening to the Sound, which is in fine shape off New Haven, and is shallow, which should make it productive biologically. With two or three tributaries, it reminds me of a tiny Chesapeake Bay. But I suppose the intensive development of the harbor's watershed, and the sewage and stormwater runoff that goes with it, has taken its toll. Chesapeake Bay isn't exactly in great shape either, so maybe the analogy is apt after all.

There were a good number of birders on the point. To a person they ignored us, except for the woman who told me about the willets, who said we should be commended.

But whether our hard work was noted or not, our enthusiasm began to flag when we reached an area of marsh grass with a line of tide wrack in the sand nearby. The amount of debris was astonishing, and I wondered what was more scandalous -- that companies like Frito-Lay make so many products in throw-away containers or that people apparently feel free to chuck them onto the streets and sidewalks. It kept popping into my head that those of us participating in this beach cleanup were not only taking on West Haven's responsibility as steward of this city-owned nature preserve but we were letting the perpetrators of this massive violation of the anti-littering laws (not to mention the corporations that make big money producing the junk in the bags and bottles) off the hook by cleaning up after them.

By 11:15 I was hot and sweaty and the beach cleanup was no longer fun. Kaare had given up, which I understood completely. He lay in the sand and suggested that I pick him up and dispose of him.

Three guys walked in from the point. One was carrying a spading fork and among them they had four or five plastic jugs of pink flatworms. I haven't encountered many things in the natural world that creep me out, but flatworms are among them. I asked what they were going to do with them. Use them for striped bass bait, they said.

"We use eels. They're better," responded a woman picking up trash.

Nick, Kaare and I decided it was time to lug out what we had gathered. I grabbed two big bags. Kaare carried two long poles made of foam. Nick rolled and dragged a couple of tires. Then I went back for one last bag, which I decided to drag rather than carry. By the time I reached the road, where some of the trash was being piled for the DPW to pick up, the bag felt considerably lighter. I looked behind me. The bottom had broken and everything we had picked up was spread in a line along 50 yards of trail. I got another bag and picked up the aftermath of my lazy blunder.

I didn't stick around to see how much garbage we collected all together. The stuff was piled in at least two locations and some people were still out on the point when Kaare and I and Nick left. I tried not to begrudge my free labor because I had willingly decided to spend a beautiful Saturday morning cleaning up after people who had willingly violated the law against littering.

But someone told me recently that city officials in West Haven haven't exactly made it a high priority to meet with environmentalists to come up with a plan to better protect the plovers and terns. I couldn't help but think that if we were going to give the city of West Haven what I estimated to be the equivalent of three days of work for free, city officials ought to at least return the favor by protecting the birds.

* The daily e-mail, which reports interesting bird sightings from around the state, said the four birds were whimbrels, which is undoubtedly correct. Either the woman on the beach misspoke or I misheard.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your article. I found it while doing research on Sandy Point. I am a newly elected Council Person from West Haven who has deeps concerns for our environment. The City of West Haven is sponsoring a beach clean up at Sandy Point on March 25th 10am-2pm. (inclement weather date of April 1st) We would like to get in there and clean out all the litter before the birds come back. Also, just an fyi, the West Haven City Council passed a resolution against Broadwater Energy's Terminal on Long Island Sound. Maybe I'll see you on the 25th?
Gail Burns

7:13 PM  

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