Of Eels and Heronries

I used to live in New York City, and after I read Joseph Mitchell’s 1951 New Yorker essay “The Bottom of the Harbor” I began to have dreams about scuba diving in New York Harbor. Thanks to Mitchell’s descriptions, I conjured up images of a mucky bottom littered with all manner of human detritus — boots, cans, cinder blocks, retired hulls — with uncountable eels poking out of their every crack and opening.

My first actual encounter with an eel took place at dusk after I’d moved south to Philadelphia. I was in the bay near a town called Margate which sits just south of Atlantic City, New Jersey, fishing with a boyfriend, in a small aluminum skiff decked out with an oversized outboard motor. Though hoping for black bass, or rock fish, I had caught — and thrown back — just one small puffer fish when I apparently ran my leader too far, my bait settling on the bay floor. The line jumped and I immediately began reeling in. The creature on the other end of my line jerked and tugged erratically, with force, and when it finally broke the surface I immediately recognized it as an eel. After multiple, futile attempts to get a grip on its slime-covered, bleeding body (it seemed to have swallowed the hook) I handed it over, in gender-stereotypic fashion, to my mate who, with his pocket knife, did his best to free the creature without killing it. Tossed back over the edge of the boat, still in full squirm despite what seemed like significant blood loss, I had little doubt that this marine-Rasputin would survive its ordeal.

I reaquainted myself with eels more recently when trying to learn more about the creatures living in the Schuykill River, which runs near my home. Eels are full of mystery and unanswered questions that befuddle scientists. James Prosek’s Eels offers a great introduction to their lifecycle and lore.

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Most fish that migrate to breed — like salmon and shad —  are anadromous, meaning they spend the bulk of their lives in salt water and only return to freshwater rivers to reproduce. Not eels though: they are catadromous. Eels grow to adulthood in fresh water streams and rivers and ponds, then return to the sea to spawn — specifically the Sargasso Sea it they are North American or European eels. Nobody knows why they go there. And nobody has ever seen them breed. How do the the baby eels know whether to head to Europe or North America, and which river to swim up? How do they know to become male or female? And later, what tells them it’s time to head back to sea?

While I’m sure they drive researchers a little nuts, I think these unanswered questions are really gifts. Unknowns breed humility: they remind us that we humans can not know and control everything (thankfully!) And, they leave room for invention.

I am working on a story about an eel right now. My eel lives in a farm pond where she is the only one of her kind. Her sole friend is a blue heron. I had long assumed that blue herons were solitary birds: I always see them alone, streamlined and statuesque, in the shallows of creeks and the like. But it turns out that while herons feed alone, they return each night to loud and raucous heron rookeries or heronries, high in tree clumps near water. There, dozens to hundreds of herons of various species build nests with their mates and raise their young, year after year after year.

The best time to see a herony is when the herons have returned from the south and are building said nests — but before the trees have leafed out and blocked visibility. I found a reference on line that described a heronry just north of Philadlephia on the Delaware River, in a small, County Park in New Jersey. And so in the name of research, on a mid-March day that my kids had off of school, we went for a drive and a hike to try to find the Amico Island Park heronry. Our route took us through unfamiliar territory: over the river and through the various strip malls — and of course past a million of New Jersey’s famed jug-handles. When we passed a capped landfill, methane pipes poking up from the engineered slopes of fenced-off mounds, I sensed we must be nearing the river. And when a blue heron soared overhead just after, we were sure we were close to the park.

We began our walk without any clear sense of where the heronry might be: the park had no trail maps or directional signage. We spent 45 minutes tromping around the lumpy, wet, disturbed bottomland before we found the scattered benches described as the viewing spot. The benches looked directly at a small, wooded island floating in the middle of an inland harbor, between us and a marina, and its the trees were loaded with the tell-tale fuzzy nest-blobs of a heronry.

Handing our single pair of binoculars back and forth, we watched the herons head off empty-beaked in all directions and return, repeatedly, with sticks and other nest-building materials. Gone was the grace of the slow-stepping water bird we had become familiar with. Maneuvering improbably on thin branches, wings akimbo for balance, these gangly ceatures seemed like a bumbling, uncoordinated, unrelated breed. And we were peeping Toms: snatching glimpses through a curtain at awkward, domestic moments that should have been private.

It was a lovely way to spend a morning.

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Further up on the Delaware’s East Branch, near Hancock, NY, a man named Ray Turner (featured in Prosek’s book and also here, again, on Science Friday) spends each summer rebuilding a V-shaped, stone weir that spans the river. His eel weir, like those built by Native Americans before him, is one of the last of its kind on the Delaware. With it, he trap eels on their fall run to the Sargasso Sea, then smokes and sells his catch at his Delaware Delicacies Smoke House. This next stop on our adventure-research tour is scheduled for early summer.

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