Fore ’n’ Aft Pond

This tiny pond, less than an acre in size, is tucked in the northeast corner of the greenbelt and is easily overlooked. It is best accessed by way of the trail that runs along the east side of Mashashimuet Park. Head south from the park to the intersection of the unopened portion of Middle Line Highway and turn left, following Middle Line east until you glimpse Round Pond straight ahead. Fore ‘n‘ Aft is tucked out of sight in the oak-hickory forest on your left; look for a well-worn, unmarked trail leading off to the left (north) and follow that a short distance (200 feet) towards a house. Before reaching the house the pond will come into view.

Fore ‘n‘ Aft is a classic coastal plain pond whose bottom intersects the water table. As groundwater levels fluctuate with the seasons and precipitation, the shallow pond shrinks and expands. I thought perhaps its unusual name was a reference to the fact that, at low water, the pond might transform into two smaller and separate ponds. But I have no evidence of that.

At all but the highest water levels, a sandy beach will be exposed at the point closest to the trail. There is also a small island, densely vegetated with wetland shrubs, near the middle of the pond. I last visited the pond in the spring of 2012 when water levels were low and a large swath of the pond’s shoreline was exposed. Not quite high and dry though; the soft, wet sediments limited exploring to the pond’s south side.

A large snapping turtle had taken up residence there, its movements clearly visible as its shell protruded from the surface of the water. The pond is also home to the controversial eastern tiger salamander, a large, smooth-skinned, yellow-and-black-barred amphibian whose size, skin color, and texture seem more suited to a tropical habitat than the oak woods of Long Island.

This elusive creature belongs to a group called the mole salamanders, a reference to their habit of living underground. Once a year the mature adults leave their subterranean haunts and seek out small, shallow ponds such as Fore ‘n‘ Aft to mate. While their appearance is tropical, their mating strategy is anything but: they emerge in mid-winter, often entering ice-covered ponds to perform their nuptial dance.

This strange practice is an evolutionary strategy that allows their eggs and aquatic larvae enough time to develop and metamorphose into terrestrial adults before the end of June, and before the pond is completely dry. Choosing a vernal or temporary pond has the ecological advantage of ensuring that the aquatic nursery is devoid of fish predators.

For that same reason, vernal ponds are crucial habitats for many other species of amphibians. But early conservationists were more concerned about the populations of game species, and small, fishless vernal ponds were not considered important. Many here on Long Island were filled, and the loss of local amphibian populations went largely unnoticed.

Long Island is at the northern limits of the eastern tiger salamander’s range, and here in New York, as well as in other states along the eastern seaboard, it is listed as a state-endangered species.

Sometime in the late 1980s, the owners of the tract of woodlands that included Fore ‘n‘ Aft filed for subdivision approval. The presence of an endangered species required careful planning of the lot layout and access road and protection of the breeding pond and a portion of the adjacent upland habitat.

That did not sit well with the landowner, who dispatched a backhoe to the pond’s aft end in an effort to punch a hole through the bottom, sink the ship, and drain his troubles away.

It didn’t work.

-Mike Bottini