Friday, August 16, 2013

Tick Safari

As I headed to check out the Beach Farm today, I switched on WNYC for the last bit of the Leonard Lopate show. An episode on ticks inspired me to post, even though there's so much else to do on the day after returning from Minnesota (it's good to be home).

In June, during the beginning of harvest season, Betsy and I were ocean camping near Montauk. We took a day off from all the hard work and Betsy requested a hike. I shrank from the idea, blaming the only thing that can keep me from a hike in the woods. I well knew that the ticks on the southern prong of Long Island are as rampant as anywhere, although when I was a kid, we ran wild in the summer shrubbery of Hither Hills State Park and I only remember flicking one of the parasites off my clothing in all of those seasons. Now, an adult, over 40, and with Lyme (no 'S' people!) disease rolling off the tongues of so many people, I can hardly stand the idea of walking a Long Island woods. But, we went anyway.

We had no repellent, and if you are going to hike in field or forest, this is your third line of defense. Your second is the proper clothing, which most of us are unprepared for when we decide on an impromptu hike in summer (we're wearing shorts, of course). The first line of defense is constant, and I mean constant, checking. The ticks I remember from my childhood were slow moving, sometimes taking hours to reach the hairline at the back of your neck. Now, like the contemporary zombie, they appear to move much faster.

We walked down slope, checking myself at every incidence of brushing anything trail side. A little embarrassed, then, when an elderly woman racing downslope with shorty shorts and walking stick forced us to the side of the trail. Checked again. Oh hell, she's flying through here, maybe the six tick warning signs at the trailhead were merely bureaucratic overkill. Maybe. At about ten minutes into our downslope hike we approached a 'T' intersection with a wider, carriage road trail. However, I didn't like the sea of tall grasses we had to breach to enter the carriage road. I stopped, breathed, and quickly made my way through the grass gauntlet.

Immediately I made a visual inspection and there was a small, reddish brown dot moving rapidly up my leg. I looked at the other leg and spotted a larger tick, instinctively swiping, launching it who knows where. I went after the tiny tick that was high-tailing it up through my leg hairs, but I fumbled and it dropped into my boot. Untie laces. Unboot. Oh, no, how will I find that booger in there? But I must, right? I took the insole from my boot, carefully, and with nothing short of eagle eye found the pest. Can you find the tick below? Imagine (this is quite an enlargement of only part of my insole) trying to find that speedy larvae or nymph in your hair or worse (think warm regions). This is why so many people who get Lyme do not even realize they have been host to the tick.

A magnification of that larval or nymphal tick on my insole.

So, after thorough checking of both Betsy and I, what were we to do? Go back through the grass gauntlet not 10 minutes after we started our hike or go on? We went on. What we decided to do, in order to manage what feels unmanageable, was make our walk a tick safari. Yes, we counted ticks, in fact -who could spot the most. Once we began training our eye on their preferred habitat, it became so easy to find them (and so much easier than photographing them!) that we gave up the contest. They were everywhere, trailside. Studying them was fascinating, and necessary, since there was no way we were going off trail to find a mushroom or look at a flower. 

We found Black-Legged Ticks and Lonestar Ticks. They climb a stem or long blade of grass and wait. If you spot one, it may have only its forelegs extended, and if you tap the stem, the vibrations will inspire the tick to spread all its legs. They don't jump, as some like to say, but simply cling mechanically with tiny barbs on their legs to your clothing or hair. Once they're on, they hustle to find a meal -this is their one chance! And it is completely a matter of chance. For the hundreds of ticks we spotted, how many will have a deer, raccoon, possum, cat, dog, or person brush their blade of grass?

Enough, apparently, and we're largely to blame (when are we not?). The deer population has exploded and deer are an important host (therefore the common moniker -deer tick). So much land was cleared in forestry and farming (take a look at this painting of Weir Farm, CT, painted near the turn of the 20th century) that deer had little to no habitat after European colonization until relatively recently. Afterward, with the rise of suburbs and exurbs, we groomed a lot of wild land and farm land into perfect deer habitat. I would have never considered seeing deer where I spent most of my childhood, on Long Island, 60 miles out of New York City.  A few years ago, on a train ride to Port Jefferson station, I spotted a deer in the woods. The north shore suburbs, all the way to Great Neck, may see deer in their gardens soon enough. Meanwhile, our attitudes about wildlife have gotten pretty soft. We fear hitting deer with our cars (the automobile is their only natural predator on LI), but shrink from other management options.

Enter into the debate a sore spot for gardeners (isn't getting Lyme Disease the sorest spot for gardeners? Or is it deer eating the Hosta?).  No, no, it's invasive garden plants. Apparently one such plant, Japanese Barberry, Berberis thunbergii, not only is an invasive species decimating the understory of our deciduous forests (along with the hungry deer), barberry is also a meal that deer cannot eat, a perfect tick breeding habitat, and an excellent home for the juvenile tick's host -the White-Footed Mouse. Read the short story here, but definitely read this full-on article.

Betsy and I stayed on carriage roads for the rest of our hike, a hike all the less adventuresome for it. Instead of returning up the trail from which we came down, we worked our way back to the road and suffered high speed traffic over tick searches. When we got back to camp, we searched each other and self-searched. So is the life with ticks. I haven't been checking myself at the farm, and I've never seen a tick on farm, but that doesn't mean they aren't there. I suppose, in part, that constant cultivation and mowing keeps the tick populations down, and the deer fence doesn't hurt, yet I should get in the habit of treating the farm as I treat the woods.

It appears to me that better trail grooming practices, although more time consuming, would help reduce tick bites. Trails can't always be the width of carriage roads, but they can have brush trimmed from the edges, grass cut at trailside by maintainers. Any trail creates openings in the canopy, allowing sunlight in, which creates opportunity for grasses and other sun loving plants to grow and lean into the trail. When I was trained for trail grooming by the NYNJ Trail Conference, we carried pruners, maybe shovels, but we didn't carry shears or scythes.

Click on the image to better see what the trail community is saying about ticks on their hikes.

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