What’s Hiding in Vernal Pools?

So much is hiding in vernal pools! A world of slimy salamander and frog eggs and ‘wee beasties’ – the strange world of vernal pool invertebrates, some of which could be cast in a horror movie!

On May 26, Matt Burne of BSC Group shared his deep knowledge of vernal pools, which he described as “small forest ponds that tend to dry up in the latter part of the year.”

The defining feature of vernal pools is that periodically, they dry up. This is key to their functions, because it means they don’t support fish – which would eat much of what lives in them.

Matt introduced us to mole salamanders, including the ‘bald eagle of vernal pools’ – the spotted salamander. They begin their breeding ritual in early spring, when temps hover around 40°, snow and ice are often still on the ground, and heavy rains fall. These are the conditions that trigger ‘Big Night,’ the night when amphibians begin to move to their breeding grounds, aka vernal pools.

Amphibians that breed in vernal pools have evolved to start early because their breeding ground will dry out. The eggs need time to mature and develop before the water disappears.

Wood frogs also breed in vernal pools in remarkable numbers. Close to the bottom of the forest food chain, the various stages of wood frogs are a key food source for snakes, birds, and many forest creatures.

Vernal pool invertebrates, practically unnoticeable to the naked eye, reveal a weird and wonderful world when viewed with magnification. Fairy shrimp, shrimp enclosed in a carapace, thumbnail-sized clams, hydra (relatives of the jellyfish).

And the invertebrate predators! Prehistoric-looking dragonfly larvae, predacious diving beetles, giant waterbugs, leeches. You would not want to encounter these creatures in a dark alley!

Why are vernal pools important? All sorts of reasons. The life in these pools supports (directly and indirectly) many of the so-called ‘charismatic mega-fauna’ (aka birds and mammals) we love to see.

The food web starts at the bottom. Invertebrates feed on leaf litter (and each other), amphibians and others feed on the invertebrates, mammals and others feed on the amphibians. The cycle of life.

Another benefit – salamanders are a key predator of mosquito larvae.

To learn more, watch Matt’s captivating presentation here. And head for a vernal pool next spring on Big Night to watch the flow of amphibians returning to their breeding ground.

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Tick Tock: May is Tick Awareness Month

Maine Tick Alert poster contest winner, grades 4-5, Natasha McDonald

Getting outdoors in spring is wonderful after winter snow and cold, but remember to prepare for ticks. Ticks were first observed in Maine in late February/early March this year.

Spring ticks are usually adults that overwintered, whereas early summer ticks are smaller (and harder to notice) nymphs. These nymphs are responsible for most of Maine’s Lyme disease.

The easiest way to avoid tickborne diseases is prevention. This May, please remember to: 1) Use caution in areas where ticks may be found; 2) Wear light-colored clothing that covers arms and legs – to make seeing ticks easier; 3) Use an EPA approved repellent such as DEET, picaridin, IR3535, or oil of lemon eucalyptus; 4) Perform tick checks on yourself and pets daily and after any outdoor activity.

Take a shower after exposure to a tick habitat. This is a great opportunity to do a tick check and may wash off any unattached ticks.

The Lyme disease bacterium is passed through the bite of an infected deer tick. For transmission to occur, the deer tick must be attached for 24-48 hours. Check for ticks EVERY DAY to ensure they aren’t attached for over 24 hours. 

If you find an embedded deer tick on you, for $15 you can mail it to Maine’s Tick Lab and learn whether it carries any of the bacteria that can make you sick. If you’re not sure whether it’s a deer tick, you can send it to the Tick Lab for identification, free of charge.

If you’re bitten by a tick or spend a lot of time outdoors, watch for symptoms for up to 30 days after exposure. Call your health care provider if symptoms develop. The most common symptom of Lyme disease is a skin rash. This is better known as the “bull’s-eye” rash. The circular bull’s eye rash usually appears 3-30 days after the tick bite and can show up at the bite site or anywhere else on the body. Other symptoms include fever, headache, and joint or muscle pain. Lyme disease is treatable, and most people recover fully, especially when treated early.

More information about Lyme disease and ticks can be found here. Stay safe while you enjoy the outdoors!

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Nat Wheelwright’s Therapy in the Time of Coronavirus

Bowdoin College Professor of Biology Emeritus Nat Wheelwright has some ideas on how to occupy yourself as you shelter at home. And it’s not what you might think from this photo! Check out his delightful short video – a little over two minutes and well worth the watch! You might see some moments that resonate with your activities in recent weeks…

After you’ve seen his most recent video, check out the whole series – Nature Moments. It’s a series of short videos designed to showcase the natural history of common plants and animals and all are only two minutes long. They’re a little addictive, especially on a rainy day when you’re stuck indoors.

If you live in eastern North America, you’ll be able to find almost all the species featured in the videos. The videos were filmed as the seasons changed in his backyard in Brunswick, Maine, so they are truly local! And many of the videos were filmed by Brunswick native and Bowdoin graduate Wilder Nicholson. Enjoy!

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Watch: Seabirds to Pollinators: Research and Art at Bowdoin College’s Kent Island Research Station

For a wonderful history of this research station, the complicated, quirky journey by which it came into Bowdoin College’s hands, and overview of the research it hosts every summer, watch this presentation by Bowdoin College Professor of Biology Patty Jones. Patty shows wonderful photos of both this remote island south of Grand Manan in the Bay of Fundy and the research station’s ongoing research on Leach’s storm petrels, savannah sparrows, tree sparrows, bumblebees, and more.

Despite the fact that island facilities are somewhat primitive – solar-powered, with limited water and wifi – 20 to 30 students and faculty conduct invaluable research every summer while living on the island.

The island has been used for research for many decades and Patty explains how exceptionally valuable this long-term data collection is, facilitating research on how populations etc change over time. Similarly, the island’s decades-long collection of weather data is critical to climate change research.

Patty conveyed fascinating information about research subjects. Did you know that Leach’s storm petrels live to be over thirty years old and return to the same burrow to nest every year? Or that bumblebees are more effective pollinators of lowbush blueberry because the vibration of their bodies shakes more pollen loose?

She also described what a rich experience this summer research is for her undergraduate students, academically and personally.

In 2019, a boathouse was renovated as an art studio to create a creative space for artists. This will likely enhance the role that artists can play in the summer life of the island and beyond. 

The presentation was livestreamed via Zoom Meeting, so from time to time you’ll see the friendly faces of those listening and asking questions at the end. Watch to the end and you get to meet Patty’s youngest research assistant! Enjoy!



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Nature Trivia – Large Yellow Underwing Moth

In an early spring e-blast, we posted a picture of this large, somewhat innocuous looking caterpillar that showed up on top of six inches of snow in my back field. 
The phone app iNaturalist, a handy app for identifying many things in nature, identified this generally as something in the Cutworms and Dart Moths family. It noted that some in this family are generalist feeders, meaning they feed on anything, which can make them something of a pest.
I soon received an email from CREA’s good friend, David Reed, our local invertebrates experts. The following information on our friend the cutworm is all thanks to David.
The so-called ‘winter cutworm’ is a common but minor pest in Europe. It is not native to North America, first arriving in Nova Scotia in 1979. It was found in Michigan in 1998 and first seen in Oregon in 2001. Apparently the moths cover some ground, since we can assume the caterpillar is neither sprinter nor distance runner.
Since then it has spread in the US as far as Texas and California. Only rarely is it reported to cause significant crop damage. They cutworms overwinter as last-instar caterpillars and pupate in the spring.  (‘Instars’ are developmental stages of insects, in between molts, that enable them to grow or change form until they reach maturity.) They live primarily on grasses but will eat almost anything in your garden including the weeds.

Large Yellow Underwing Moth

Most interestingly, the caterpillars generate their own glycol antifreeze to prevent freezing in the winter. As they move about in late-winter or spring, they metabolize that sugary glycol at which point they are no longer protected from freezing.
As David noted, “Isn’t nature marvelous?”

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What’s Happening Outside in Early April?

Winter snows are gone except for sheltered, north-facing pockets and signs of spring abound. The Maine landscape undergoes more transformation in April than in any other month.

Amphibians emerge from winter hibernation, bird chatter is on the rise, maples prepare to unfurl their glorious early blossoms, and many animals and insects begin their annual life cycle rituals. The natural world offers endless entertainment to those who stop, look, and listen, and spring is a particularly exciting time to be outside.

Most woodcocks have finished their elaborate aerial courtship dances and paired up for mating. Pussy willows bloom in wet areas, joined by red-winged blackbirds who once again fill wetlands with raucous calls.

Bluebird pairs scout for nesting sites, while cardinals – at their most brilliant red this time of year – loudly maintain their territories. Goldfinches and phoebes returned to the midcoast recently, and grouse can be heard drumming in the woods.

Red maple flowers

Red maple buds are getting ready to unfurl their gorgeous red and yellow flowers. Find a red maple, notable for their very red buds, and visit it daily to watch the changes.

Spring is a great time to learn new trees and shrubs through careful observation. Different tree species break their buds and flower/leaf out at different times, making it easier to pick out individual species across the landscape. Red maples put out their flowers early, so when you see trees decked out in a blush of red, you know they’re red maples.

When you see woodland shrubs displaying a white blush of flowers amidst the still naked forest landscape, that will be shadbush, (also called serviceberry). 

The same principle applies as trees leaf out. The pristine young leaves of many tree and shrub species have distinctive coloring, making it much easier to identify individuals of each species in the landscape. In summer, once leaves have matured to the same dark green, trees and shrubs become a wall of green that can be more daunting to investigate. 

Listen for the sound of spring peepers and wood frogs as they call – LOUDLY – for mates. Vernal pools should soon be stocked with frog and salamander eggs. Check our recent post on vernal pools for more information and resources.

Robins are passing through in droves. Resident robins are searching for nest sites in conifers which provide better cover early in the season. And new, impossible to identify warblers arrive every day.

White trillium

Soon, false hellebore and skunk cabbage will push up through the soil in wet areas. The woodland flowers will follow – Bloodroot, Trillium, Trout lilies – completing their flowering before trees leaf out (ensuring good access to sun) and while soil nutrient levels are high.

A growing number of tools are available to help you interpret the natural world. Readers will enjoy Naturally Curious: A Photographic Field Guide and Month-by-Month Journey through the Fields, Woods, and Marshes of New England, by Mary Holland, a Vermont naturalist.

Merlin is a free app developed by the Cornell Ornithology Lab that helps with bird identification. Enter information about a bird you see (size, primary colors, location, where it is in the landscape) and get suggested species. Or, use it to search birds by name and listen to their songs.

The free app iNaturalist allows you to photograph a plant, then offers options for what it could be. If you select an option, other naturalists will review your photo, confirm your identification if correct, and correct it if it was incorrect. Once confirmed, your data is considered research grade and is available for use by scientists. And, a great way to learn new plants!

The natural world is alive with activity in spring. Use all your senses to detect her coming. She arrives with the honking of migrating geese, the din of spring peepers, the blush of flowering trees, the greening of the landscape, the soft touch of tender green leaves, and the indescribable smell of rebirth. Enjoy!

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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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