As Pamelia and I prepare to head off to South Georgia Island and Antarctica, we're enjoying the dozens of common mergansers that have gathered right here on the Maine bay in front of our house. They're heading south too. These photos, shot by Pamelia, show some of the funky-crested ducks flying in front of Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park. In some photos the distant water looks like an impressionist painting.
It can be scary to launch a new event. Will anyone come? Will the weather hold up? Will participants enjoy it? The Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park took that toboggan ride into the unknown with its 2015 Winter Festival, held from Feb. 19 to 22 at the institute’s 80-acre oceanside campus in Winter Harbor, Maine. I hopped on board for what turned out to be a bracing and memorable run down the hill.
The experience was best summed up by one of the more than 100 people who came from as far away as Boston and New York to attend some portion of the festival, be it a talk by the great naturalist and writer Bernd Heinrich or a birding hike or a paper-snowflake workshop. “This is so much fun,” she told me in the cold morning sunshine as she and others built a multi-piece, illuminated ice sculpture atop a snowbank. “It has changed my whole relationship with winter.”
For those of you who didn’t make it to the event, here is a glimpse of 10 things you missed:
1) A new way of enjoying Maine’s awesome, historic, bring-on-the-blizzards winter
The secret to surviving a season of sub-zero cold and 100 inches of snow is to embrace the experience. I put on my warmest snow boots (which I bought before covering the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics in Norway back when I was the editor of Sports Illustrated For Kids magazine) and headed out for a variety of activities, among them an animal-tracking hike with outdoor educator Chuck Whitney, the birding expedition (also led by Chuck) and a peaceful walk through the forest to visit the winter camping site set up by wilderness guide Garrett Conover. Other festival participants cross-country skied, built a quinzhee snow hut (more on that below), tried open-fire cooking (more on that too) and found other ways to explore and engage with the winter world. They loved it.
2) Frozen Water Balloons. The illuminated-ice-scupture workshop, taught by sculptor and art educator Blake Hendrickson, brought out the creative inner kid in participants of all ages. Blake brought vessels in which to freeze ice pieces of many shapes and sizes.
Blake also provided white and colored lights to weave through the outdoor installation of those pieces. Some of the lights changed color in response to sounds—clapping, talking, even the strong wind that gusted one night.
3) Nature. This is the essence of Schoodic at any time of year. Hearing Bernd Heinrich describe how animals survive here in the harsh winter conditions changed how many of us looked at the landscape we were exploring. We envisioned the tree holes, dens, snow nooks and other homes keeping animals alive. Bernd told of grouse diving into the snow and making temporary tunnels in which to hide from both cold and predators. The next morning, as I walked through the woods, a grouse exploded from the snow and flew past me. An electrifying winter moment.
4) Outdoor beauty. This too is a Schoodic hallmark, and the snow only enhanced it.
5) Great indoor food. We fueled up in Schoodic’s cafeteria-style dining hall, which has the warmth of a woodsy lodge. Home-baked lasagna, seafood chowder, chicken-salad wraps, Caesar salad, pumpkin chocolate-chip cookies, blueberry pancakes, vegetarian options—the food was all delicious, and we shared it at communal tables where new friends were made at each meal.
6) Great outdoor food. Naturalist and outdoors educator Alexandra Conover Bennett taught the workshop on baking bannock bread, a camping favorite cooked on a stick over an open fire.
7) Snowflake-making. Instructor Breanna Pinkham Bebb was adamant: Snowflakes are hexagonal (six-sided), not octagonal (eight-sided), and to cut eight-sided snowflakes—as some crafty types apparently do—is inauthentic. I’m science-based all the way, so I was on board to learn the correct, if more challenging, technique of folding and cutting a piece of copier paper to resemble real snow crystals.
8) A different view of Cadillac Mountain. Schoodic Peninsula is a bit more than an hour’s drive up the coast from Mount Desert Island, where the larger portion of Acadia National Park is located, but by water the two bodies of land aren’t far apart. Time and again during the festival I looked up and saw Cadillac—the tallest mountain on MDI—rising in the distance.
9) The quinzhee snow hut. Unlike an igloo, which is made from piled blocks of snow, a quinzhee is hollowed out from a mound of snow. It’s a survival cave, but a cozy one. The group had a blast building one near the Schoodic Institute’s baseball field.
Side note because I’m a word nerd: The term quinzhee was coined by a Native American tribe in Canada, and last summer it was one of about 25 Canadian-originated words added to the official Scrabble dictionary. Quinzhee was the most exciting addition for Scrabble players because it includes a q and a z (each worth a lot of points) and, if played on the top row of the board, ending on the top right square, can supposedly score 401 points for a player. That’s an almost unbelievable total for a single play.
10) The people. Shared experiences build unique camaraderie, and the pioneering group that attended the winter festival bonded with each other as well as with the place.
Yesterday wildlife biologist Linda Welch told the stunning story of seabird decline in the Gulf of Maine, which stretches from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod and is one of the most rapidly warming bodies of water on Earth.
In an informal lunch talk at Acadia National Park HQ, Linda laid out facts that should jolt anyone who cares about birds, fish, oceans, lobsters, Maine or the potentially devastating effects of climate change on the global web of life and the ecosystem of which humans are part. She and her researchers have tracked a 57% drop in the Gulf over the last 10 years in the number of Arctic terns, a 27% decline in roseate terns, a 47% reduction in cormorants in 15 years, a 31% decline of great black-backed gulls, a fall of 22% in herring gulls, a drop of 30% in eiders, and so on. These birds are struggling to find adequate food in the Gulf, whose temperature began dramatically spiking upward in 2004, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
Linda knows her stuff; she has done seabird research at Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge since 1998. When she says that birds like terns, razorbills and puffins could be gone from the Gulf of Maine within a decade and notes how desperately the changes in the Gulf ecosystem need to be further studied—right now—we need to listen. Please spread the word. The Naturalist’s Notebook will be telling and showing you a lot more about this subject in the months and years ahead.
Thank you, Linda and Acadia and also Schoodic Institute, where Seth Benz, director of the bird ecology program, is doing vitally important work.
O.K., so maybe she won't paint a billion. Her still-troublesome neck/brachial plexus/arm problem likely wouldn't let her do so, and The Naturalist's Notebook is only so big. But Pamelia has begun inventing and experimenting with paint, paper, fabric and collage to produce an artistic rendering of the universe for a portion of this year's Notebook. (Do any of you remember an old Creedence Clearwater Revival album called Cosmo's Factory? Pamelia is turning her studio into a Cosmos Factory.)
She's speeding up the process. Actual stars form over the course of millions of years when particles of dust and gas collide, unite and start pulling in more particles through gravity. This eventually creates enough heat inside the new body to turn hydrogen into helium (a nuclear fusion reaction) and release huge amounts of energy. We see that energy as sunlight or starlight, feel it as the Sun's warmth, or study it through various types of telescopes, some of which see and measure things that humans can't: the X-rays, ultraviolet rays, infrared rays, gamma rays, radio waves and other forms of energy that stars emit.
If you have ever seen a photo of the Orion nebula, like the one below taken by the Hubble telescope, then you have seen a place where the aforementioned process is taking place. It's what astronomers sometimes call a "star factory." This nebula, a mere 1,500 light years away, is the star factory closest to Earth.
Pamelia and I will be talking about stars and the Notebook over the next week in meetings at Dartmouth, Harvard and MIT. Stay tuned!
The Notebook's New Specimens I've been meaning to tell you about the black drumfish dental plate, the alligator scutes and the shark-tooth fossils. Bruce Lampright, the South Carolina naturalist who visited the Notebook last October with other advance scouts from the 2013 Family Nature Summit—a nature vacation group that has chosen to come to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park for its week of fun activities this July (not too late to sign up: http://www.familysummits.org/index.php)—generously donated to us some specimens he collected in his home state. You'll be able to see them at the Notebook this summer. Here are a few photos:
We're All Suckers for Cute Bear Cubs A friend forwarded this Canadian TV segment about tagging bears. It's a little goofy at times, but it is a rare look at the process, and the cubs—which are pulled out of the den along with their still-asleep mother!—will make you go, Awwwwww....
Mind you, if we're really looking to protect bear populations, we might want to let the bears pull us humans out of bed and fit us with monitoring collars that warn them when we're coming.
Seals On Ice I posted the photo below on The Naturalist's Notebook's Facebook page this week after Pamelia and I saw some of the seals who live near our house floating past on ice chunks. We've seen the seals do this every year, but usually a couple of weeks later in the season. Given that there was a full moon the night before the seal sighting, and that the moon affects the height of the tides, and that a very high tide might dislodge chunks of ice along shorelines, we wondered whether the timing of this event is linked to full moons. We'll have to pay attention to that starting in February 2014, right after I return home to Maine from Russia and the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Today's Puzzler Thanks to Notebook correspondent LJ for passing along the below photos from snowy western Maine. Can you identify the animals that made each set of tracks? (And, if you live in snow country, do you have any track photos you'd like to share with us?)
a) Wolf b) Fox c) Coyote
a) Bobcat b) Dog c) Rabbit
a) Hare and mouse b) Squirrel and vole c) Fox and hen
If this were an SAT test, here would be the question: Alaska is to the United States as (BLANK) is to Acadia National Park.
The answer would be Schoodic, a section of Acadia that is physically separate from and wilder than the main body of the park, which lies roughly 40 miles away and covers two-thirds of Mount Desert Island. That's not to say you need a bush plane and a bear rifle to go to Schoodic. Pamelia and I took the scenic drive there the other day and enjoyed both the pristine setting and a destination that you'll be hearing much more about in years to come if you care about science and nature: The Schoodic Education and Research Center Institute, more commonly known as SERC.
Two of the most significant decisions of the last century in Down East Maine were a) the 1969 vote by a few hundred citizens in the town of Trenton to veto the building of a nuclear power plant and aluminum smelter on the shores of Union River Bay, on Acadia National Park's doorstep; and b) the shifting of a U.S. Navy base in the 1920s from a beautiful corner of the park and Mount Desert Island—Otter Cliffs, located close to The Naturalist's Notebook—to the Schoodic peninsula. The latter happened thanks to the efforts of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who saw the base as an obstacle to the gorgeous, coast-hugging route of Acadia's then-under-construction Park Loop Road, which he was helping to fund.
The decision left Mount Desert Island more pristine, but initially took a toll on Schoodic. "When the base was built, this place was clear-cut," Abe Miller-Rushing, the science coordinator for Acadia National Park, told Pamelia and me as he gave us a tour of the now-woodsy, 80-acre SERC complex. "It became a forest of radio antennas."
A vital hub of cryptography work and radio communication in World War II, the base was decommissioned in 2002 and the land turned over to Acadia National Park. Federal econonomic-stimulus funds over the last few years helped transform it into the new SERC campus. Several of the paved roads were torn up and replaced with walking paths. Buildings were renovated. The Navy base's bowling alley became a long bunk house in which visiting school groups often reside. In all, some 20 buildings—including an auditorium, science labs, art studios and rentable-by-the-week apartments—dot the campus.
SERC now sleeps as many 300 and attracts scientists, naturalists, teachers, artists (including participants in Acadia National Park's artists-in-residence program) and student groups from the U.S. and abroad. Its official mission is "to guide present and future generations to greater understanding and respect for nature by providing research and learning opportunities through its outstanding Acadia National Park setting, unique coastal Maine facilities, and innovative partnership programs."
On the day we visited, interpretive ranger and educator Kate Petrie—through an Internet video hookup—had just been showing a class of fifth-graders in Kansas a Maine tidal pool. Visitors from Oman were in residence, learning from Acadia and SERC staffers how to grow and improve their country's park system and use nature to boost tourism.
Abe told us that among its many other initiatives—from field research to efforts to combine art and science to the instruction of advanced-placement high school teachers—SERC is setting up a bird-banding program that will operate year-round and fill an important scientific niche: Currently there is no such coastal banding center north of the Maine-New Hampshire border, a four-hour drive to the south. (Cornell has a station there, on Appledore Island.) Given the number and variety of birds that migrate to or reside in the Schoodic-MDI region—a whopping 338 bird species have been spotted in Acadia National Park alone—it's important to keep track of how the populations are faring.
Abe had invited us to tour SERC and meet with him to talk about possible collaborations with The Naturalist's Notebook. We are looking forward to those. And on a return visit we hope to see one of the many porcupines that Abe says show up almost every day. SERC even hosted a lecture last year called "The Unusual Life of the Porcupine" given by one of the country's leading experts on those unique, lumbering, tree-climbing creatures. Where else would you get to hear a talk like that? And learn about Oman, sea turtles, World War II and tidal pools that are visible in Kansas? If you're in Maine visiting Acadia and want a great experience, take the drive to SERC and see...the other Acadia.
Using Thoreau to Measure Climate Change Abe Miller-Rushing is himself a scientist—a phenologist, to be exact. That's someone who studies the timing of cyclical natural events such as bird migrations and flowers blooming. He recently co-published an op-ed piece in The New York Times on how the nature observations of Henry David Thoreau are aiding in the study of the ever-earlier-in-the-season timing of many natural phenomena. Abe has found, for example, that highbush blueberries in Concord, Mass., which flowered in mid-May in Thoreau's day, are now flowering in early April:
Bird Sightings (Cont.) Here's a field report from Downeast Audubon's International Migratory Bird Day outing last Saturday, courtesy of naturalist Lynn Havsall: "We had fantastic looks of singing Blackburnian, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Black & White, Parula and Pine Warblers along with Brown Creepers putting on quite a show and a very upset male Golden Crowned Kinglet that had his orange head feathers raised like a cardinal! It was cool!!!"
Correspondent Virginia Jacobs (if you didn't see this in the comments section of the blog) wrote to say that in Ohio the juncos have gone, the finches and chickadees are back and oven birds have been in evidence. On the subject of oven birds she recalled that when her son was young he used to look for what he called "stove birds." Instead of tufted titmice he watched for what he called "tufted tiptoes." If I were an artist, I would love to draw a tufted tiptoe.
Keep the observations coming!
Nature Movie Fest Reel Pizza, one of our favorite haunts in Bar Harbor, is holding the Maine Wildlife Conservation Film Festival this Friday to Sunday. There are way too many good films to list, but the subjects range from jaguars to whales to tamarins to the importance of shade-grown coffee plantations to migratory birds (I told you I was going to keep pounding that subject into everyone's head). Check out the lineup at:
Answer to the Last Puzzler
Question: What do you call a cow that has just given birth?
Answer: Decalfinated! (Thanks to correspondent George Stransky for that one.)
1) The word reptile comes from a Latin word that means:
2) The Latin root of the word amphibian means:
a) of two modes of life
b) water traveler
c) swimming feet
Today is International Migratory Bird Day. The event was created in 1993 and now is celebrated at more than 500 sites throughout the Western Hemisphere. I just read an online piece from the Jerusalem Post saying that Israel is marking the occasion too. The theme this year is 20 ways people can help protect and preserve birds every day.
We'll write more about those 20 ways in future posts, but I'll mention one that is near and dear to The Naturalist's Notebook: drinking bird-friendly coffee! The world's thirst for coffee has been steadily growing, and migratory bird habitat in Central and South America and the Caribbean has been devastated by clear-cutting for non-shade-growing coffee plantations. Ever since the Notebook opened we have sold bags of coffee certified as bird-friendly (that is, shade-grown and organic) by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Institute. The coffee is a bit more expensive than the stuff sold in supermarkets, but it also tastes better and—far more important—helps birds!
Please stock up on bird-friendly coffee when you come to the Notebook this summer. And spend at least a little time today appreciating birds!
Another Big Event We're delighted to announce that acclaimed ornithologists and writers Jeff and Allison Wells will visit the Notebook on August 18 for a bird walk and talk and a book signing for their great new field guide, Maine's Favorite Birds. We'll be writing more about the Wellses and the event soon. Put it on your calendar!
Avian Action Hummingbirds and warblers are showing up here after their long migrations. We put up two hummingbird feeders yesterday and within minutes both had ruby-throated hummingbirds drinking from them. In addition we just saw a yellow warbler, wood thrushes and an ovenbird, among many others. Let us know what you've been seeing where you live.
Forgot to Ask...
Magical Moment Notebook friend and correspondent Kathy Weathers recently had a memorable experience off the California coast. She and her husband were on a 42-foot sailboat going from Marina del Ray to San Diego and back, and as Kathy writes:
"THE highlight was marine life sightings (pelicans, seals, sea lions, one sunfish, one gray whale) and watching dolphins hunt their prey. WOW! A mile-long line of common (I think) dolphins moving quickly into hunting formation to devour a school of fish. At one point, a group broke off to swim alongside the bow. I lay down on the bow, extending my arm. They were about three feet away, some turned to make eye contact, blew through their air holes, and dove again. About a half-mile from shore, three small birds (at different times) landed for a rest. We quickly scurried to offer fresh water and sesame seeds, but they seemed to want to just rest.
"We retrieved 20 mylar balloons [from the sea]. The first was a light blue star, the next said Happy Birthday"—coincidentally, Kathy's husband, Prent, was celebrating his birthday—"the next 10 were various colors tied together ... a bittersweet scavenger hunt for birthday wishes. I'd love to have those items banished the way plastic bags are in some communities." Thanks, Kathy!
The Tortoise Man
If you didn't see this NPR story when I posted it on our Facebook page, take the time to click on it now. It's about the inspiring 86-year-old man who is singlehandedly restoring the population of giant tortoises on one of the Seychelles islands. Click below: http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2012/05/11/152350238/120-giants-found-living-with-86-year-old-man
Answer to the Last Puzzler
A few of you came up with alternative answers to the riddle, "How do rabbits keep their hair neat?" One of you came up with "in a bun" (as in bun-ny) and another of your proposed "a hare net." The official answer is "a hare brush," but I'll take all three as correct.
Another riddle: What do you call a cow that has just given birth?