Exploring Where Oceans And Rivers Intersect

May 14, 2018

In nature, fascinating biology can be found on the edges -- intermingled habitats where biodiversity can flourish. Reporter Patrick Skahill recently traveled to one such edge along Connecticut's shoreline, what’s called a “head of tide.”

I’m straddling a lumpy bridge arching over an old stone dam. Long Island Sound is only a few miles away and Interstate 95 is even closer. But here, wrapped in trees and the sounds of flowing water, it all feels so far away.

“Today we’re at the head of tide on the Menunketesuck River in Westbrook and Clinton,” said Steve Gephard, a supervising fisheries biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

A head of tide is “where one ecosystem ends and gives it up to another ecosystem,” Gephard said.

At high tide, he says this area of the Menunketesuck, pronounced “muh nun kuh tee suck,” is brackish. That means there’s a mixture of fresh and salt water, which is important for migratory fish like eels, alewives, or blue-back herring.

Steve Gephard, a supervising fisheries biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, in front of a fishway and eel pass his agency manages on the Menunketesuck River.
Credit Patrick Skahill / Connecticut Public Radio

“This is the area where their bodies adapt to the changing salinity,” Gephard said. “These heads of tides are critical for making that transition for these animals that migrate back and forth.”

Protected plants, like Parker’s pipewort, mingle with invasive phragmites. Around the dam is an eel pass and fishway, managed by DEEP. The agency is also tearing down some old structures to make the area safe before it’s opened to hikers and hunters.

As our interview ends, Gephard pauses and looks up.

In the distance, an osprey sails overhead. In person, it was a lot closer -- before I was able to wrangle up my camera.
Credit Patrick Skahill / Connecticut Public Radio

“There goes an osprey right now -- probably checking out the fish run just like we are,” Gephard said.

It’s a beautiful site. Heavy wingbeats lock into the osprey’s signature M-shaped silhouette. Both of us watch as the raptor silently soars over one of Connecticut’s least developed heads of tide.

This reports comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies including Rhode Island Public Radio, joining together to tell stories of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.