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Archive for June, 2010

We had a very busy day on Wednesday, but fortunately the weather cooperated and the thunderstorms seemed to have worn themselves out by 7am.   Our big news for this week is that we had 34 Least Tern nests on Lovells Island!  Apparently the terns nesting on Winthrop Beach were depredated over several days last week and most (all?) abandoned that colony site.  We had seen terns prospecting around Rainsford on the 16th, but it appears that they chose Lovells to try again.  We revisited Rainsford and posted tern signs there on Wednesday, but no terns were present.

Least Tern Colony, Lovells Island (CLT, 6/23/2010).

The Lovells colony is situated it its usual spot, but we found several nests extending eastward much future than expected.  Ranger Bill helped with bird surveys on Wednesday and had plans to expand the symbolic fencing to enclose all nests when he returned to Lovells Wednesday afternoon.  Thanks to Susanna, Carl, Marc, Heather, and others who helped share information about the fate of the Winthrop terns so signs could be posted and nest counts undertaken.  Just goes to show how important it is to continue to protect appropriate habitat, even in years when it isn’t being used.  You just never know when they’ll need it!

We also counted 269(!) Common Eider chicks in the outer islands, with some now approaching adult size.  Creche sizes are increasing and there seem to be a lot of eider around, so it was a challenging week for counting (see below).  In addition, over 100 eider chicks have been consistently reported from Nahant (thanks Bob) so it certainly appears to be a great year for eider!

A challenging week for eider counting... (CLT, Green Island, 6/23/2010).

Although we found no Least Terns on Rainsford, the pair of American Oystercatchers seen there previously were still incubating three eggs on the north beach, and two pair of Spotted Sandpipers were spotted once again on the west end of the island.  We also noted a pair of American Oystercatchers on Middle Brewster, and individual adults on Calf, Outer Brewster, and Little Brewster, the latter of which seemed to be feeding only.  Double-crested Cormorant chicks and Black Crowned Night-Heron chicks have started showing up fully fledged and we noted 2 immature Great Cormorants and one Gray Seal in the outer islands.

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Baker Island Light Station

Visitors tour Baker Island, including the Baker Island Light Station and the Gilley family homestead. Built in 1828, this lighthouse is one of the oldest in the Mount Desert Island area. Acadia National Park gives public tours of the island from mid-June to mid-September (P.Morgan).

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A whale tail (NPS/S. Lupis Kozlowski).

The sound coming from the computer was haunting—mystical, pre-historic. It is the type of sound that makes you stop in your tracks, evoking a deep uncomfortable sensation in your gut. Surely, this is what Brontosauruses used to sound like? But wait, are we actually listening to whales sing?

On Saturday, June 19, 2010, I had the opportunity to attend Dr. Sean Todd’s lecture on whale ecology, entitled “The Very Wet and Fat Whales of the Gulf of Maine” at Acadia National Park’s “Interpwoods”, a seasonal training lecture series for us newbies. There were talks on everything from Acadian geological patterns to invasive insects—something for the inner scientist in all of us. When I saw the title of Dr. Todd’s lecture on the schedule, I must admit that my inner little kid immediately vetoed any other plans that I had for that session.

Whales have captured the minds and hearts of people as early as the first stories of the Bible (think the story of Jonah). Beautiful, mystical, and fascinating, it is easy to see why these charming creatures are such prevalent symbols in our society (think “Save the Whales” campaigns). In fact, Dr. Todd uses these social connections with whales to evoke public interest and, in turn, scientific interest that fuels his research. Using audio technology, Dr. Todd studies the migratory patterns of whales as a way to elicit appropriate conservation strategies.

But before I get ahead of myself, what exactly makes the Gulf of Maine so favorable for whales? After all, it takes a lot of energy to sustain a whale population. Think about it in terms of trophic levels: predators (like whales) are never 100% efficient in their use of captured prey energy. Actually, just 1 kg of tuna requires 10 times as many kilograms of mackerel (tuna prey on mackerel). The rest of the energy is lost due to processes like defecation, locomotion, etc. Therefore, in order to make 1 kg of tuna, there must be 10 kg of mackerel for the tuna to eat, 100 kg of herring for the mackerel to eat, 1000 kg of zooplankton for the herring to eat, and 10,000 kg of phytoplankton for the zooplankton to eat (see Figure 1 for a graphical representation). And that’s just to produce one tiny kilogram of tuna. Whew—where in the world is that much productivity present? You guessed it—in the Gulf of Maine!

The proximity of the Arctic creates an ideal environment for highly productive systems: the Gulf Stream brings warm water currents up the coast, while the Labrador Current brings cold, dense, nutrient rich water from the Arctic. And when the warm and cold water mixes, fog is released. The fog, along with nutrient-rich upwellings, create ideal conditions for productive environments.

Upwellings in the Atlantic Ocean bring nutrient-rich waters to the surface (S. Delheimer).

Furthermore, the morphology of the Gulf of Maine allows it to function like an enclosed sea. Ridge walls surround the water within the Gulf and have few openings, limiting the opportunity for organisms to leave the Gulf.  The varied morphology of ocean floor within the enclosed Gulf of Maine also contributes to the productivity of the region by creating movement and mixing between deep and shallow waters that encourages the movement of photosynthesized material.

After an overview of the whale phylogenetic tree (did you know that dolphins are considered whales?), Dr. Todd went into further detail concerning his acoustic work with whales. Whales are very vocal animals, and even use vocalizations in courtship, such as in the famous Humpback Whale’s song. Dr. Todd and his research team use hydrophones (connected to buoys) to record underwater whale songs. With this equipment, the researchers can continuously record all sounds passing by that particular buoy 24/7. If you put out more than one buoy, then you can track the whales as they pass by, measuring the exact migratory patterns by comparing the frequencies of whale songs amongst buoys. And while whales do not have distinct, individual songs, they do have distinct accents based on their families, therefore allowing scientists to distinguish among whales by species and individual families.

Using these migratory patterns, scientists can examine migratory trends and use them to determine whether patterns are changing and why patterns are changing. Once the “why” factor is determined, resource management strategies can be developed to encourage the sustainability of whale populations.

For example, with the overfishing of herring (a keystone species), whale sightings drastically declined; whales were leaving the Gulf of Maine to find food in other locations. In simpler terms: humans were competing with whales for herring. Once this pattern was identified, resource management strategies were established to curb the overfishing of herring in order to encourage sustainable whale populations in the Gulf of Maine.

Humpback Whale (S. Delheimer).

And while this entire lecture had the overall resounding “Save the Whales” tone, Dr. Todd made it very clear that his intention is not to emphasize the ecological importance of the whales in particular, rather the ecological importance of trophic systems in general. How will the whales survive if there is no zooplankton to sustain the many trophic levels above it?

Arguably less charismatic than whales, copepods (a type of zooplankton) have inspired less interest and research than whales, yet as a critical trophic system link, they hold considerable ecological importance. Therefore, I propose another campaign: “Save the Zooplankton”. Who is with me? Who knows—maybe the copepods sing a song that we haven’t even detected yet…

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Visitors at the summit of Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park (July 2009 S. Delheimer)

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I ate the last bite of my undercooked Mexican bean pizza and rushed upstairs to brush my teeth and gather my things. Somehow Saturday had passed me by, and in fifteen minutes we had a lecture to attend.

Every second Saturday the Schoodic Education and Resource Center hosts a researcher to talk on scientific subjects of possible interest to the surrounding communities. Arguably, Saturday’s topic was of concern not only to Gouldsboro townees but also to anyone (tourist, economist,  business owner, lobstah lovah) across the state, states, and world.

Global warming remains a controversial topic among many audiences, but it has attracted the special attention of researchers, city planners, and residents in coastal areas, like Downeast Maine, as a valid and persistent issue. Indeed, it’s driving the black-capped chickadees out of York County, sending the ocean’s water levels further onto the mainland, and limiting the successful reproduction of one of Maine’s economic engines–lobsters.

Malcom Burson, climate adaptation program manager, addressed the evening’s audience with a disclaimer: as a public policy person, not a scientist, he was simply there to present facts and map out trends and predictions of what global warming could do to the state of Maine.

Climate change may be less agitative a word than “global warming”, but they are undeniably related. The bottom line is that as greenhouse gases trap the sun’s radiation and warm the globe, the climate is changing across the world. The argument that global warming is unreal because of ice storms or record snowfall is undermined by the increasing amount of data that shows an accelerated rate of sea level and global mean temperature rise.

Phenology is used to describe plant and animal life cycles dependent upon seasonal changes that are directly impacted by climate change. Monitoring blooming dates and the start of the growing season are two simple ways to track the effects of climate change. The easiest way to understand the significance of climate change, Burson emphasized, is to use our senses to observe changes in our immediate environment and everyday lives.

Take breakfast for example. More specifically: pancakes. No, the syrup on pancakes. Mmm. It turns out, climate change is affecting the maple tap-dates in Maine. According to Burson, Maine is tapping for maple syrup one month earlier than it was in 1896. Maine Sugarworks, a family-owned syrup company in western Maine, says that their tapping season has become progressively shorter as the maple belt moves northward towards colder climates.

Maine has three distinct climate zones: the north, the southern interior, and the coast. Burson notes that most of the climate change occurring in Maine is in the northern part–not the coast. Maine’s coastal temperatures have always been a bit different, due to the fluctuations of the currents in the Gulf of Maine. Regardless, if global emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases are not lowered, Burson says that Maine’s mean temperature will be closer to that of Maryland by the end of the century.

Sea level rise and water temperature increase are two impacts of climate change native Mainers are likely to feel or notice. Of concern to naturalists is the likely loss of habitat for the sharp-tailed sparrow, a secretive bird who nests within a meter of the high water mark. Here in Maine, the sparrows are known to breed on the causeway connecting Mount Desert Island (the hub of Acadia National Park) to the mainland of Maine. Needless to say, flooding may also threaten some coastal communities.

Driving along the coast is a cultural experience in itself; lobster buoys hang off the porches of peoples’ homes and stacked lobster cages comprise a reasonable portion of their front yards. Every restaurant has a lobster emblem and its boats can be seen floating out in the harbor collecting a day’s catch. Yes, lobsters are as popular here as guitars are in Nashville. At least before our recent May flood, guitars were never considered an “at risk” commodity, our tourism sector hardly in jeopardy. But if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, Maine’s single most important fishery could be in danger.  CO2 contributes to acidification of waters, which disrupts lobster larvae’s ability to form shells.

Here in Maine, the transportation sector is mostly responsible for production of greenhouse gases. In return, public infrastructure can be worn away through the increased rainfall received as a result of climate change. Nor’easters, storms that typically occur in winter and drop large amounts of snow on coastal Maine, are becoming more common in spring and rain down in liquid form–weakening the structure and stability of bridges, roads, and culverts.

Climate change, according to widespread global research, is real; what’s debatable to many is what we should do about it. At least for now, ongoing monitoring of the emissions is essential to forming effective solutions and climate action plans that will help preserve Maine’s natural areas and its economy. Proactivity, including developing infrastructure such as sewer systems that hold up to harsher weather, is a way to deal with the changes we are currently experiencing and may continue to experience. No, we don’t know what will happen in 100 years, just like we don’t really know whether tomorrow’s 40% chance of rain will manifest itself. But we have models to aid in predictions, and come tomorrow, wearing a rain jacket is probably smarter than wearing a thin white cotton shirt.

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The Graves, 6.16.2010.

Our fourth trip of the season took place under cool, but calm conditions yesterday.  Our eider surveys in the Outer Islands turned up 308 chicks, with another 6 spotted off Rainsford, for an all time record of 314!  This speaks well for the eider this year, since we usually see numbers dropping by now, as many young perish.  We have also been receiving reports of eider chicks spotted off Revere, Winthrop, and the south shore, so we know our numbers underestimate the total number of chicks still out there on the water.   In addition to great eider numbers we had 3 seals, 2 Wilson’s storm-petrels, and two Mute Swans (!) turn up to be counted.  We also had one adult Great Cormorant on Shag Rocks.

Common Edier chicks on the water (The Graves, 6.16.2010).

American Oystercatchers were detected in their usual spot on Calf Island, and individuals were also detected on Green and Great Brewster.  We had heard reports of AMOY on Prince’s Head on Peddocks, but were unable to find a pair their.  However, we did find an oystercatcher nest on Rainsford Island (good eyes Sally!), along with 2-3 pair of Spotted Sandpipers and 16 Least Terns actively checking out nesting territory.

Apparently, the Least Tern colony on Winthrop Beach was predated on the 15th (thanks for the updated Susanna and Tim!) – so the terns on Rainsford were likely Winthrop individuals looking for a place to renest.  I also received a call from Carl Johnson last night saying that he had spotted even higher numbers of Least Terns on Lovells yesterday, as well.  We’ll visit both sites next week to see what happens…  As some of you may recall, we had a small colony of Least Terns on Rainsford in the early 2000s that then hopped over to Lovells in 2007.  After suffering heavy losses there, the group turned up on Winthrop Beach in 2008 where they received the added benefit of watchful plover monitors.

Gull and cormorant chicks are growing like crazy!  Stay tuned for more next week …

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Little Moose Islant

With a rocky beach on either side, a spine of vegetation runs down the center of Little Moose Island (P.Morgan).

Often a forgotten section of Acadia National Park, Little Moose Island provides visitors an opportunity to explore one of Maine’s undeveloped natural resources.  That is, if you check the tide charts beforehand.  The island is only accessible by foot at low tide from the Schoodic Peninsula.

Walking from the mainland to Little Moose Island makes you feel like bananas are strapped to the undersides of your sneakers.  The dense bundles of rockweed and Irish moss draping the rocks may be slippery, but soon after you set foot on the dry, weather-battered basalt and granite, you realize that this slick journey was worth it.  Alongside the sound of wind weaving through evergreens, the smell of ocean salt declines as the smell of pitch pines and spruces picks up with each step onto the island.  Sun-bleached seashells lie in granite depressions and the foamy suds of the spittlebug dot wild herbs.  Narrow, Robert-Frostian footpaths form a Celtic weave on the island’s vegetated spine, reminding visitors of the shrub-mazes popular in today’s yoga and Zen centers.  It is the rocks and wildflowers, though, that really catch your eye:

Striated granite rocks

Many of the granite rocks on the island are rounded and striated (P.Morgan)

At first sight, the rocks on Little Moose Island appear to be the same as on the mainland: there are dark basalt dikes intruding granite.  The crevice patterns in the intermingling rocks on the island’s coast are more apparent than on the mainland.  As you walk to the unprotected, ocean-side of the island, away from the mainland-side, the crevices are noticeably larger and the number of detached rock slabs increases because the weather is much harsher on the ocean-side of the island.  The other major observations are the striations on the granite: tiny grooves mark many of the granite rocks.  Are these striations the result of glacier-action over 10,000 years ago?  Or did they form as blocks of granite weathered and slid off the island’s coast?  Although it would take more than an afternoon walk to determine the answer, the occurrence of both striations and rounded granite faces suggests that glaciers created the scratch patterns, not too unlike the formation of rounded glacial erratics or whalebacks.

Little Moose Island’s wildflowers grant visitors a glimpse of the Northeast’s coastal vegetation.  There are numerous types of white flowers on the island, from the small petals of yarrow and cow parsnip to the relatively large petals of the bunchberry flower.  The vibrant blues, purples, and pinks are what I was interested in:

Shrub Rose

The island's shrub rose is in full bloom in June (P.Morgan).

The largest and most profuse flower on Little Moose Island is the shrub rose, which dominates the mainland-side of the island and is eventually overridden by taller evergreens.  This flower comes in pink, purple, and white varieties, and gives Little Moose Island the look of an English garden.  Combining bush and species roses, shrub roses are a motley group of floral leftovers – the term “shrub rose” gives confidence to virgins of flower identification because it can be used on most rose-like flowers without going wrong.  Parts of the shrub rose are rich in vitamin C and are used in cooking and certain medications.

Blue flag

Blue flag flowers are the island's most vibrant flora (P.Morgan).

Although shrub roses may be the most common June flower on Little Moose Island, the blue flag flower may just be the most beautiful.  The blue flag, a type of Iris, is bright blue and can be seen sprouting out of granite crevices, as well as other areas.  These vibrant flowers can be dark blue one day, and then sun-bleached blue the next day.  The provincial flower of Quebec, this perennial herb has long been used in herbal medicines to treat syphilis, scrofula, and skin afflictions, such as burns or sores.

Harebell

Harebells are difficult, but rewarding, to find on Little Moose Island (P.Morgan).

Though hard to find, harebell can be found on Little Moose Island.  This blue or violet flower can be seen swaying in the wind towards the far end of the island.  Common in Ireland, the name “harebell” comes from the traditional belief that witches use the flower’s juices to turn into hares.  It has also been called goblin’s, witch’s, or Puck’s thimble.  Harebell leaves are sometimes used in salads, and its root is thought to be a cure for earaches.  Harebells have traditionally been used to cure depression and treat sore eyes.

Regardless of whether you’re a rock or flower person, timing the tides right in order to walk over to Little Moose Island is an adventure in itself.   In addition to wildflowers, this island is the home of at least one porcupine, a variety of birds, and numerous barnacles and bivalves.  The trip is well worth the slippery crossing over the intertidal zone.

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