Merrymeeting

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At the confluence of six rivers and a long tidal inlet: 9000 acres of part-salted water and mud known as the Merrymeeting Bay. Forty percent of Maine’s freshwater flows to the Gulf of Maine through this inland delta. The Gulf’s waters surge into bay twice daily, pushed by oceanic tidal forces but slowed by their long passage through the rock cleft that is the lower Kennebec River. High tide here is hours later than on the coast.

For decades, the waters were so polluted that paint would peel from any building located near the bay or its upstream rivers. Great rafts of dead fish flowed out with the tides. The stink worked its ways into the growth pattern of towns. Apart from huge brick-walled mills — now shuttered or turned to self-storage units — towns and farms turned their backs on the river and bay. Only the poorest parts of town had water views. Unlike the southern Maine seacoast that is now largely encrusted with expensive houses, shores here comprise rock, poisoned mud, and a few scattered hunting lodges. This leaves room for others: Eagles are common, although their bodies are spiced with the toxic remnants of upstream industries. Signs warn humans not to consume the fish, but eagles don’t give a damn about what they read. The flow of some chemical effluent is now diverted into other rivers, other bodies, in other lands. Outsourced, to benefit America’s waters and retail outlets.

Wild rice grows in abundance on the mudflats. In late summer bobolinks flee the mown inland meadows to feast in the rice thickets and roost. Now, at the equinox, the bobolinks are winging away to try their luck in a southern continent. Ducks gather in their place to dabble at rice and aquatic insects. Below the water, endangered short-nosed and Atlantic sturgeon swim slowly upstream, nosing through a vestige.

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Reminder of what flies over unseen on autumn nights

A sora, dead on the road outside the post office in Sewanee, Tennessee. These are wetland birds of the north. A dry road gutter in a town built in the southern forested uplands is a far cry from the sora’s usual marshy home.

img_20160912_133918895 This is not the first dead rail that I’ve seen on Sewanee’s roads during the autumn. Their nocturnal migratory flights carry them over the Cumberland Plateau. Perhaps they are lured then confused by the “security” lights that festoon our small downtown area. An early morning driver must have struck this bird as it wandered the road.

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Those stubby wings are well adapted to movement in the dense vegetation of marshes. They’re also powerful enough to carry the birds — those that escape our lights and tires — over the Gulf of Mexico to their wintering grounds in Central and South America.

Listen as you walk in the evening: autumnal migrants are streaming through the skies every night, calling as they fly. Chirp, tzup, zzip, the sound of hundreds of thousands of memories of wetland, forest, and prairie, winging bird-thoughts south, away from the leading edge of winter. We’re hearing part of the landscape’s mind in motion. On the roads, in the morning, tiny flecks of lost understanding.

 

 

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Art installation and allegory: Grimes Ave, Ocean Point.

Imagine that you own a large house overlooking one of Maine’s most scenic shorelines. You might ask yourself: How can I best honor and enjoy the privilege of owning property adjacent to this grand meeting of ocean and land?

The obvious answer: Artillery. Set up launching pad for fluorescent orange clay targets, fling them over the shoreline and ocean, then gun them down. The shrapnel falls into the commons, the sea and rocky tidal zone. People wandering on the rocks, along your property line, enjoy a bright confetti of broken clay amid the barnacles.

To crown the sport, erect a sign asking passers-by to be… respectful.

Rachel Carson’s Edge of the Sea…updated for gunners.

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shoot

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Scaly quiz

This is a:

a) Baby pangolin

b) Squirrel-chewed balsam fir cone

c) Section of fish skin with placoid scales

d) Bud of a cycad plant, a reminder of the Mesozoic

e) Other

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Hint: Photo taken (1) in Maine where autumn is underway, (2) near overenthusiastic weed-eaters.

Answer: The inside of a not-quite-mature milkweed seed pod, cut then exposed by lawn care devotees. Each seed is attached to a “coma,” a bundle of silky threads that puff open into a wind-catcher when the seeds break free. The silks are remarkably soft, like the fluffiest bird down. Luckily for those of us who like softness and need warmth, the Québécois are now cultivating milkweed for use as clothing insulation.

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Mastery through simplicity: Tide pool springtails, Anurida maritima

Anurida maritima

As if the tide pool surface was ice, hundreds of small gray animals skate and jiggle over the salt water. Not a single one of the animals is wet. None sink. In gusty wind their swarms blow back and forth within the confines of the rocks that wall the tide pools. In still air, the animals’ tremulous movement draws them into ever-shifting amoeboid shapes.

Anurida maritima, the “seashore springtail,” has a distribution that encompasses most of the rocky shores of the North Atlantic. This species’ daily rhythms are tuned to the tides. At low tide, the springtails disperse over the exposed rocks, scavenging for food (including discards from mollusc-throwing gulls, as I discovered a few weeks ago). About an hour before the rising tide submerges them, the springtails retreat to rocky crevices and huddle. When the tide reaches its full height, the animals are fully submerged. This rhythm seems to be controlled from within: they keep up the cycle of activity tuned to the tides even when removed to a lab.

Not many animals can be so amphibious. Oxygen, in particular, is hard to come by. Land animals have lungs adapted to air, sea creatures have gills that can extract oxygen from water. There is not much room for an “in between” state. Animals with lungs hold their breath underwater, then surface to gasp more oxygen. Marine animals exposed at low tide close their shells and trap doors to keep their gills moist. Springtails manage to break these rules and thrive by adopting the path of simplicity. Oxygen enters their bodies across their skin, so during high tide they wander in the open air without lungs. When submerged, the waterproof hairs on their bodies hold a layer of air close to the skin, like a diver’s air tank.

The springtails use more than their body hairs, though, to carry them through 3-4 hours of submergence at high tide. They seek out rocks whose undersurfaces allow several springtails to huddle within an air bubble. If they’re lucky (and clever) enough to find a good spot, the bubble keeps the animals oxygenated through the entire high tide cycle, acting like a lung into which oxygen diffuses from the sea water. By the end of the tidal cycle the bubble is depleted — it shrinks and eventually disappears — and the animals must tolerate low oxygen for a while. Then, when the waters recede, they are free to wander the wrack and see what washed up on the falling tide.

Relatively simple though this strategy may be, it is extraordinarily successful. Close inspection of rocks reveals the springtails wandering nearly every surface at high tide. There seem to be thousands of them in a single square meter. These close relatives of the insects may lack wings, internal breathing apparatus, and elaborate body appendages, but lack of anatomical sophistication has unlocked feeding and living opportunities for which no other creature seems able to compete.

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Ocean teenagers leaving their shed clothes everywhere

Small horseshoe crab shells have started littering the wrack line in Middle Bay, Maine. Every high tide brings more, sometimes half a dozen shells for every meter or so of wrack.

These are not dead crabs (the May full moon mating frenzy left plenty of those), but the discarded exoskeletons of molting juveniles. Young horseshoe crabs spend the first few years of their lives in the muddy bottom of the bay, just below the lowest reach of the tide. In August they molt, crawling head-first out of their old shells, then the animals swell up and harden their new armor. The cast-off shells wash ashore. Mature horseshoe crabs don’t molt, so these shed skeletons are all from growing youngsters. I’d guess the one in the photo is about two or three years old. This year’s hatchlings are still less than an inch across.

These are good things to find. Although the species is protected in Maine, horseshoe crab populations elsewhere have been hammered over the last decades by harvesting for bait and for bleeding (to yield chemicals used in human blood tests). Seeing new generations coming along is good news for the horseshoe crabs (who’ve been around largely unchanged for >400 million years) and for the migrant birds that depend on their springtime eggs for food.

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Great new book: “I Contain Multitudes” by Ed Yong

News flash: A fabulous new book about microbial life (which, it turns out, is all life) hit the shelves yesterday.

Ed Yong is an outstanding writer whose elegant, witty prose describes a revolution in biology. Our new understanding of microbes upends much of what we thought we knew about medicine, conservation, ecology, and many other fields. I Contain Multitudes takes us into the labs and the field sites where this revolution is unfolding. Ed not only delivers a book full of incredibly important ideas, he lets us inhabit the processes that gave rise to these ideas. Including the correct way to obtain an anal swab from a dangerous animal.

If you have a strong intellectual immune system — one that is skeptical of the overblown claims that sometimes spill from scientific discoveries — Ed is a great guide. He’s clear-headed about both big ideas and bad ideas. His is a refreshing rigor in a time of journalistic bombast.

And, if you’re looking to see the world with new eyes, sloughing away the tropes, voice, and stale hypotheses of textbooks, you’ll love this book. The Atlantic, where Ed works as a science writer, has a timely excerpt about the microbial dimension of Zika and mosquitoes.

I strongly recommend doing yourself a favor and getting your hands on a copy. And by “your hands” I mean the dozens of species that comprise the communal entity formerly known as your “self.”

 

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Living flypaper

On the edge of a mountain bog in Maine, a thumbnail-sized plant grows amid the mosses:

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This is sundew, Drosera, a carnivorous plant, ready to ambush.

Darwin devoted twelve chapters of his 1875 book, Insectivorous Plants, to the anatomy, behavior, and physiology of a European species of Drosera. He writes:

During the summer of 1860, I was surprised by finding how large a number of insects were caught by the leaves of the common sun-dew (Drosera rotundifolia) on a heath in Sussex. I had heard that insects were thus caught, but knew nothing further on the subject… I gathered by chance a dozen plants, bearing fifty-six fully expanded leaves, … it was soon evident that Drosera was excellently adapted for the special purpose of catching insects, so that the subject seemed well worthy of investigation.

The results have proved highly remarkable; the more important ones being—firstly, the extraordinary sensitiveness of the glands to slight pressure and to minute doses of certain nitrogenous fluids, as shown by the movements of the so-called hairs or tentacles; secondly, the power possessed by the leaves of rendering soluble or digesting nitrogenous substances, and of afterwards absorbing them; thirdly, the changes which take place within the cells of the tentacles, when the glands are excited in various ways.

We now know that sundews are forced into a carnivorous mode of existence by the poor soils of the bogs in which they live. They are starved of nitrogen and, not being able to find any through their roots, resort to feasting on flying nitrogenous sources, aka insects. (If extra nitrogen is added to their roots, they back off from carnivory.) The “dew” on the plants’ leaves is sweet and sticky; the droplets lure and trap passing sugar-seekers. The plants’ movable hairs and leaves then draw their victims into the center of the rosette of leaves where glands digest then absorb the meal.

Insects also serve as pollinators of the sundew’s flowers. You’ll note that the flower stalks holding opening buds in the pictures above are very tall. Natural selection evidently says: don’t eat your pollinator for lunch.

My camera could not capture the full beauty of the sundew’s leaves. The following photo by “I, Petr Dlouhý” (generously shared under a Creative Commons license) gives a glimpse. The last thing a gnat sees before The End:

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Cold, cold bathing (duckling style)

The Labrador Current carries water from northern Greenland down the Canadian coast, then swirls its iciness into the Gulf of Maine. On the Maine shore, waiting for the splash, are common eider ducklings:

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During:

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After:

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whee that was fun, can we go swim now?

In the surf, the downy balls have no trouble. As a breaker approaches, they dive then pop back to the surface, paddling in the sea spume and froth.

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When they hatch the ducklings weigh just 70 grams. After ten weeks of growth those that have not been eaten by gulls and seals are nearly as heavy as adults, about 1600 grams. They accomplish all this while keeping their bodies at 40°C (104°F) despite the frigid water (10°C, 50°F on a good day in the early summer). Their diet must therefore be rich in protein and fat — crustaceans, and other sea animals — and their eiderdown coats tight.

Small avian endotherms have no trouble with the water. Surely I should take a dip and join them?

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I lasted a screamingly cold two minutes. The first minute was pure pain, the second was alarmingly numb. I salute you, eider ducklings.

These eiders in Maine live at the southern edge of a range that encompasses much of the northern coastline around North America and Eurasia. The species is listed as “near threatened” meaning that we have significant cause for concern about its future.

Locally, here in Maine, the situation was dire but has improved. Bradford Allen‘s review of eider biology in Maine reports that over-hunting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries reduced the population from tens or hundreds of thousands of birds to just four birds nesting on one sea island. At the time, many of Maine’s coastal islands were inhabited by people; nesting birds fared very poorly alongside hungry human settlers. By 2000, after several decades of hunting restrictions and the abandonment of Maine islands to well-fed tourists, the population had risen to 29,000 pairs nesting on over 300 islands.

Across North America, population trends are mostly unknown. Hunting continues. According to the Sea Duck Joint Venture, a collaboration among scientific and management groups:

Within North America, most sport harvest occurs along the Atlantic coast; with about 15,000 birds taken in Canada and about 23,000 in the New England states. They continue to be harvested commercially (80,000+ birds/yr) in Greenland, and this may not be sustainable.

BirdLife International reports that:

In Europe the population size is currently declining overall at a rate of >40% over three generations…Given the strong declines in the European population and a lack of compensatory increases in the North American population the overall population trend is thought to be declining moderately rapidly.

So although eider populations have rebounded from the edge of extinction in some parts of coastal Maine, their longer term future is uncertain. Current threats include oil spills, entanglement in nets, over-hunting, disturbance from expanding industrial activity, poisoning from mercury and other pollutants, predation by gulls and eagles, and nesting site disruption by development and tourism.

Maine’s history of near annihilation followed by recovery gives us reason for hope. If we can stay out of their way, young eiders will continue their 28 million year history of salt-water life.

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Now we see through a glass, (darkly, nope…) Tiffany, Chihuly

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, light streams through vitrified pigmented sand:

From Louis Comfort Tiffany, Parakeets and Gold Fish Bowl, a piece made in about 1893. Tiffany’s use of glass to evoke the birds’ colorful and varied head patterns is stunning.

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Sadly, the work now stands as an unwitting eulogy. By 1910 the Carolina Parakeet was extinct in the wild and the eastern US had lost its only native parrot. A few lingered for half a dozen years in zoos, but these individuals died without leaving offspring. Occasionally, the birds’ reflections surprise us with a gleam in museum galleries, but their light is almost entirely gone.

A few steps away, Dale Chihuly’s Lime Green Icicle Tower (2011) uses some of the same palate, but without direct representation and, I hope, presaging of extinction.

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The piece is 40 feet high, about 10,000 lbs of glass in conversation with the sun, the museum’s atrium windows, and the vegetation outside. From some angles, inner and outer reflective surfaces combine and tangle. Intended or not, this creates a coda to Tiffany’s work: what we conceptualized as Nature is now, whether we like it or not, wrapped into Humanity. Understanding this, might we, perhaps, perhaps, snuff and shadow less light?

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