Keeping Maine’s Sky Dark at Night

Have you seen the Milky Way recently? At a recent meeting with Rob Burgess of the Southern Maine Astronomers, the topic of the nighttime sky came up (not surprisingly!). I mentioned my childhood memories of being awestruck by the Milky Way at night and asked why I don’t see much of the Milky Way these days.

Rob explained that light pollution is the culprit. As artificial lighting increases light levels at night, smaller, fainter stars become more difficult to see.

Apparently, the orange glow I see to the west is the ‘light dome’ created by Lewiston. Similar domes exist over Portland and most other cities and well-lit areas. Near cities, cloudy nighttime skies are hundreds to thousands of times brighter than 200 years ago.

Unfortunately, this decline in truly dark nights affects more than just our ability to see the Milky Way and many stars. It also affects wildlife.

According to the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), artificial light at night has harmful, sometimes deadly, effects on wildlife. Nocturnal animals whose habits have evolved around cycles of light and dark for millennia are particularly affected by our brightly lit nights.

Prey that use night as cover are more vulnerable to capture. Nighttime glare can disrupt wetland frogs and toads that emit mating calls only at night, reducing reproduction. Bright lights also interfere with birds’ migration and disrupt insect food webs.

The good news is – there are simple changes we can make to reduce our impact on the night. The general principles are:

  • Light only what needs to be lit
  • Provide light only when it is needed
  • Make lights no brighter than necessary
  • Choose ‘warmer’ lamps for outdoors (<3,000 k)
  • Shield lights so light illuminates downward only

These principles argue for motion-activated outdoor lights of less than 3000 k. It’s now possible to purchase outdoor flood lights with motion sensors built into the light, so you don’t need to buy a new fixture to take advantage of motion-sensing technology.

I now have a motion-activated LED entry light, set to a ‘warm’ light (which draws less current). It works beautifully and gives the creatures of the night their privacy (as long as they don’t try to come up our front steps)!



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What is a ‘Puffling,’ Anyway?

Puffin populations in Maine are healthy today, but that’s a relatively recent development as we learned from Susie Meadows, 

CREA’s featured speaker at Topsham Public Library in November. Manager of the Project Puffin Visitor Center in Rockland, Susie described the drastic decline of puffins and other seabirds prior to 1918 due to overharvesting – principally for feathers. Project Puffin was started by the National Audubon Society in 1973 as an effort to learn how to restore puffins to historic nesting islands.

It wasn’t until 1981 that puffin pairs started breeding on Eastern Egg Rock, but much was learned about seabird restoration along the way. In 1973, very young puffins were brought from Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock. The young age was necessary so the ‘pufflings’ (yes, that’s what juvenile puffins are called!) would imprint on the island and return later to breed. Pufflings were hand-fed in burrows by volunteers for six weeks, then headed to the open ocean for two to three years as is their custom.

When the puffins did not show up to nest on Eastern Egg as hoped for, project leaders tried different tactics to attract them, including mirrors, decoys, and puffin calls, theorizing that they needed to create an environment that was socially appealing. The presence of other puffins signals the presence of food sources and safety in numbers.

In 1981, four puffin pairs successfully raised pufflings on Eastern Egg and the population has since grown to over 150 pairs. Restoration efforts using the same techniques began on Seal Island in 1984 and pairs began breeding there only eight years later. Five hundred pairs now occupy Seal Island.

The social attraction techniques developed in the Puffin Project have since been used to restore seabird populations to locations all over the world, including Terns, Common Murres, Bermuda Petrels, and the Short-Tailed Albatrosses (Japan). Some of these species had been believed extinct, so the techniques developed to restore puffins in Maine proved to be invaluable in restoring other very vulnerable seabird populations.

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CREAtivity and ReCREAtion

This article was originally published in CREA’s Spring 2019 newsletter.

Connection with nature provides health benefits, and activity and movement enhance creativity and happiness. Research shows that people participating in nature-related activities as part of a social group have more meaningful, deeper experiences. By providing small-group opportunities for recreation, through the company of guides, friends, or schools, individuals will be empowered now and in the long term to make healthy choices for themselves and their communities.

Over the years, CREA has established strong partnerships with local schools, providing hands-on science learning through active exploration of our environment. Many students who come to the CREA Ecology Center on field trips also participate in summer day camp with us too. Teachers, families, and area residents of all ages find inspiration and joy through programs at CREA.

Our talented Board members, friends, advisors, and volunteers donate their time and expertise, facilitating programs and leading activities. Did winter slow you down, or have you felt less spark lately? Spending time in nature cannot solve everything, but CREA’s creative ideas and fun opportunities for outdoor activities will help. Come discover and develop your connections with nature!

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