Monday, July 21, 2014

Peaks to Portland

Last week I headed down to Portland to watch the finish of the Peaks to Portland swim.  I am in awe of people who swim in open water.  Many years ago, I completed a sprint triathlon, and learned that training in a pool is oh so different from swimming in the ocean.  Every 2 inch wavelet seemed like it was trying to drown me.  It wasn't a pretty sight.

So my respect for folks who swim competitively in the ocean is great.  The Peaks to Portland, a fundraiser for the Portland YMCA, is 2.4 miles long, from Peaks Island to East End Beach in Portland.  The water was in the high 50's/low 60's; making for a cold swim, even in a wet suit.  It was a great morning; worth an early morning drive to the big city.

Before the race started, an army of volunteers prepped the finish line.  There were water bottles to put out . . .

. . . and oranges to cut up . . . 

. . . and medals to prepare.

Then we waited . . . 

. . . and played with the dogs (it's a dog-friendly beach in the early morning) . . . 

. . . and scanned the horizon for signs of swimmers.

Then far, far on the horizon, we could see tiny specks that grew bigger and bigger.

Until finally the lead swimmer charged through the moored boats and into the finishing chute!

And the leaders' escort kayaks made their way to the boat ramp.

Eventually a huge pack of swimmers and kayaks streamed our way.
The kayaks poured up the boat ramp (I helped carry for awhile).

This must be a dream come true for LL Bean and other outfitters.  This is only a small fraction of the kayaks.

Congrats to the finishers!  Great job.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Guest Bloggers -- Hannah and Josie Go Whalewatching

A humpback whale sounds near the boat.
It's been a busy week for me -- home from the island for some work and pleasure -- so I thought I might trick someone into writing a blog post for me provide an educational opportunity for some young scientists. Yesterday my young friends Hannah and Josie joined me for a whale watch, and here's what they have to say:

Before the whale watch we ate lunch at the Cape Ann Brewing Pub.

As you can see, we didn't like it very much.
Josie:  Today we went on a whale watch.  I loved it so much.  We saw humpback, minke, and fin whales. My favorite of them all was the humpback.  We saw them fluke, breach, and make bubble traps.

When they fluke, they come up to the surface of the water and whip their tails up in the air.

When they breach, they jump up out of the water and their full body comes out of the water and slaps back down on (and into) the water.

When they make bubble traps, one to seven whales blow bubbles out of their blow holes and make bubbles in a circle around prey which are mostly sandlance, which are a type of fish.  The bubbles confuse and trap the sandlance.  Then the whales swim up from below with an open mouth and eat the fish.


Hannah:  The whale jumped.  In what seemed slow motion, the head, speckled with barnacles, rose out of the water.  Following close behind, its great big front flippers whipped wildly next to it, causing ocean water to spray behind.  The heavy tail lifted and the whale leaned back in a big arc.  It plunged into the depths of the deep blue waves, splashing everything in about a seven foot radius.  The very last tip of the tail disappeared.    Ripples filled the water, the last mark of a whale I'd never see again.

We got a great view of all the action.   The whales were EVERYWHERE!

This whale is showing us his fluke pattern.  Every whale has a different pattern, so it's like a fingerprint.

A bubble net, with whales about to surface in the middle.

Whales feeding in the middle of a bubble net.  The birds are all hoping to get some too!

This whale has a full mouth!
Some notes from the Ocean Lover:  Hannah, Josie and I went whale watching out of Gloucester, Mass, on the Seven Seas Whale Watch.  Whale sightings have been excellent in the past few weeks, and we saw a ton of whales -- the first one just outside of the Gloucester Breakwater.  A very large group of feeding humpbacks (~20) crowded on Tilley's Bank, allowing us to observe bubble net feeding, tail slap feeding, and a single breach just feet from the boat.  Our naturalist was kind enough to spend some time with my young friends, and told us she was able to quickly identify three of the whales we'd been watching; Wyoming (sex unknown), first seen in 1988; Cove (male), first seen in 1982; and Lynx (female with seven known calves to her name), first seen in 1981.  

Not all whale watches are created equal.  If you're interested in whale watching, I recommend going with a company that either partners with a conservation or research organization (Seven Seas partners with Ocean Alliance), or one that is a member of Whale Sense (a program that promotes responsible whale watching). Whale watching can be disruptive to whales if not done carefully,and a recent study by the International Whaling Commission showed whale watch boats represent the greatest threat to whales in terms of ship strikes.  Supporting companies that treat whales respectfully is one way you can do your part for the oceans.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Egg Hunt -- Black Guillemots

Time is passing quickly on the island, and everyone is rushing to complete their research before we all head home.  Luckily, people are all willing to pitch in and help with collect data, especially if it involves a trip to the next island over and a hunt for black guillemot nests.

Black guillemots on Kent Island.
Guillemots (Cepphus grylle) are rather charming little seabirds, not too distantly related to puffins.  These little guys are black and white, with rather striking red feet and mouths (inside their beaks).  They forage along the shoreline, diving for up to two minutes at a time as they use their wings to push them through the water to hunt small fish and invertebrates.  Guillemots lay their eggs ashore, usually under boulders, but sometimes in piles of driftwood or simply in a crevice along the shore.  One of our students is studying the nesting behavior of these cute little birds, and last week a bunch of us went on an expedition to Sheep Island to search for eggs one afternoon.

Before we got started looking, Damon and I got a bit distracted.  A humpback whale washed up on the island last October, and I hadn't gotten a chance to see it yet.  This is a known humpback (they are identifiable from the markings on their tails, which are photographed and cataloged), who was called "Harmonic".  In the cool northern climate, it takes quite a while for a whale to decompose, so here he was more than half a year later, still looking quite intact, although some baleen had been washed further along shore.

Harmonic, decomposing on shore.  He's on his back with his ventral pleats visible in this photo.
A large section of baleen washed up in the bushes. The inside of the baleen, a rough hair-like tangle of keratin, can be seen here.  This is used to capture fish inside the mouth. 

Once we had a good look at the whale, we joined the students and got down to business.  Sheep Island's west side is boulder-strewn, so this was quite an Easter-egg hunt:

Ideal nesting habitat for black guillemots; loads of boulders to hide eggs under.

Any eggs under here?

What about here?

Success!  Two eggs sitting on the ground under this rock.

Collecting data after finding eggs.
Once we got into it, we found a bunch of nests -- too many to process in the time we had ashore.  The curse of success!
This egg was just sitting out in the open.  This is not a very good strategy -- crows and gulls love to eat eggs!

These two eggs (look carefully) were well hidden in a pile of rocks.

This little gal was sitting on her eggs, watching us with suspicion.

Another egg sitting out in the open.  Competition for nest sites must be keen, if some birds resort to this.

Close up of an egg that was preyed on.  The colors are amazing!

Hang on a second -- that's not a guillemot!  (We had to use caution to not step on hidden gull chicks.)

Damon getting the skiff, to take us back to Kent (and a hearty dinner!)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Babies Babies Everywhere

Sometimes in America, when we are embroiled in modern life, shrunk wrapped into our cars and entombed in our suburban houses and vacuum-sealed into air-conditioned offices, it's hard to tell that summer's about more than barbecues, fireworks, and a trip to the beach.  For the vast majority of species out there, summer's about babies -- putting forth heroic efforts during a very short window of time to pass on DNA to the next generation.  But here on Kent Island, it's in our face, all the time.

My favorite nest site on the island; in a fish tote that washed up above the beach.  Looks super cozy.
Mama came right back to sit on her eggs once we moved on.
The herring gull eggs are hatching.  We have thousands of nests on the island, most with three eggs in them. That means thousands of fluffy little chicks, thousands of begging mouths to fill, and thousands of angry moms and dads when we get too close to a nest or hatchling.

Gulls can get downright dangerous if you venture too close to their nests. They mob us, swoop down on us, rake us on the head, scream in your ear, and poop with surprising accuracy.  To protect ourselves, we move quickly, wear hats, hold up sticks above our heads (they go after the highest point of the intruder), and construct Gull Protection Devices.  It all makes going for a walk downright unpleasant, and trying to do any research on the beach seriously difficult.

Two eggs hatching.  The upper left one has a hole but it's hard to see.
What a herculean effort it must be to break free from the shell.
This chick was freshly hatched -- still wet.  Welcome to the world, little gull!
You really have to watch where you step.  Babies can be hiding anywhere.
 The adult gulls are rather pesky, as you might imagine.  However, the babies are really cute at this stage. Covered with grey fluff, hiding under bushes and behind their angry parents, whistling softly or begging loudly, baby gulls are pretty cute.  They'll have a hard life, and for most of them, it'll be short.  Especially for the third egg baby, chances are, you won't make it past September.  A hungry eagle will grab you, you'll die of exposure, you'll starve, or you just won't learn to take care of yourself.  In the back of my mind, I know for each of these cute little puff-balls, it'll be a desperate struggle to stay alive for a few years, until they're old enough to have their own chicks.  But it's hard to think life is so hard, when I'm surrounded by so much hope and life everyday.  Thank goodness for chicks, and pass the gull protection device, I'm going for a walk!

A black back gull trying to take my head off.  This is without magnification; he was dive bombing me!  Sorry it's not in focus; I feared for my life when this was taken.
A student wearing a Gull Protection Device.
Damon's head; a victim of a gull attack during a run.  Just another day at a seabird colony!
The only kind of gull I trust.  But he does look a little suspicious . . . .

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Lobster Nursery, In Which We Are Pinched

The mysteries of the ocean never cease to amaze me.

A small, probably year-old lobster, plucked from his hidey-hole.  Don't worry, he went back after this pic.
Last week while I was home, I tagged along with some colleagues who were out collecting Crepidula fornicata and Crepidula plana -- slipper shells.  These mollusks have a very interesting life history -- they live in piles.  The one on the bottom -- the biggest one -- is a female.  The ones on the top -- the littlest ones -- are males.  The ones in the middle could go either way.  They can change sex from male to female, being protandrous hermaphrodites; not an uncommon thing in the animal world (nor is going the other way, from female to male).  The females release pheromones that prohibit the males above from changing sex; maintaining a neat little reproductive stack.

We had a good idea of where we could find Crepidula that weren't attached to big boulders; that would make collecting them difficult since they suck down to rocks and are hard to remove without killing them.  So we needed them on small cobbles; easy to collect and transport.  We hit the jackpot; easily collecting the number we needed in only about a half hour.  (Note; we have a special collecting permit from the State of Maine, and can only collect specimens for research or teaching purposes.  Don't collect organisms from the ocean without one; you can get into serious trouble with the law, and populations can be severely impacted if we all just take things for fun.)

Collecting under a perfect summer sky.
Sorting through the organisms.
Crepidula fornicata.  Notice the smaller one (the male) stacked on the larger one (the female).
Our job was done, but the tide was still going out, the sun shining.  A perfect opportunity to do some poking around in the many tidepools nearby.  We had some suspicions there would be a lot of interesting things in them.  Our first hint?  This very intriguing rock, with plenty of sand newly pushed out from under it:

What lurks under the rock?
What could be under there?  One way to find out!
Do you see what I see?  Look carefully!
Just as I suspected!  A small lobster!
The tidepools at this spot were chock full of juvenile lobsters.  Almost every rock we turned over had a small lobster hiding under it -- which would grouchily raise its claws at us, or walk away in disgust.  Some of the pools held lobsters simply walking around, seemingly unconcerned by our presence.

Lobsters have a fascinating reproductive cycle.  It starts when the female molts.  She finds a dominant male, then molts in his presence.  Given their reputation for ravenous cannibalism, this might seem surprising.  But the male can only give her his sperm packet while she's soft, so he has to be a tender lover, not a ferocious fighter, in this situation.  After she molts, he protects her for a few days, then she wanders off to live her own life (often being replaced by another female who's ready to grow a new shell).  She holds onto that sperm packet until the time is right, then fertilizes her eggs, which she holds on her "swimmerets" -- under what we call the tail of the lobster -- until they mature and are released as plankton during the warm months.

Planktonic lobsters go through three stages, which can last from a month to three months in total. During this time they hunt (being ravenous just like their parents), molt and grow, and are swept along by currents. When they reach the third stage, they start to look like tiny lobsters, can swim very well, and begin to look for a place to settle.  They start to avoid light, therefore swim away from the surface.  They make frequent forays to the bottom, to see if currents have carried them to a suitable nursery.  What does a baby lobster look for in a home?  The absolute best habitat for a tiny lobster, who's vulnerable to predation by fish, crabs, and what have you, is a shallow cobble-strewn area.  One with lots of nooks and crannies to burrow into. They'll settle for a salt marsh bank, or eel grass bed where they can dig a hole, but these aren't the best homes. Once they find a good spot, they settle, molt, and with that, aren't plankton anymore.  Tiny benthic lobsters can actually filter feed in a way -- they create a current and eat plankton that get carried into their burrows.  Eventually they grow large enough to be safe(r), and emerge from their hiding places to forage.

This juvenile stage might last a year, after which they move away from shore and act more like adult lobsters. So it's not unusual to find baby lobsters near shore, under cobbles.  Often, the east side of islands and peninsulas are great nurseries, because the prevailing currents carry lobsters to these areas, where they run into land and it's the end of the line.  For example, the east side of Damariscove Island is known to house many baby lobsters, but the west side is a desert.  There are over 100 hot spots known, and monitored, in the state of Maine.  The settlement of lobsters is a big deal up here:  big lobsters come from little lobsters, so knowing how they reproduce and grow is important.  There are plenty of interesting questions being worked on about lobster reproduction right now -- like does a hot spot for babies mean the area is a hot-spot for adults?

Just out for a little stroll.
Barnacles in a tidepool.  I love how they settle in the cracks of the rock!
Maine, the way life should be.
Now you might be saying "where is this magical place where baby lobsters are a dime a dozen?"  Well, for now, I think I'll keep it to myself.  Baby lobsters don't need a ton of people turning over their rocks every nice day.  But I'll let you in on a spot where you're likely to find them, if you promise to be very careful about turning over rocks, to put the rocks back without crushing anything, and if you don't take any lobsters home (you can't do it; it's illegal):  drive down to Land's End in Harpswell (all the way down Bailey Island).  You might just get lucky.

But if you do see a baby lobster, a word of caution.  They pinch.  They really, really pinch hard.  How might I know?  Well, I'm not above embarrassing myself.  For your entertainment, Janet catches a baby lobster (don't laugh too hard):


And he just kept holding on and pinching . . . .  He won.  He was small but potent.

Want to know more about lobsters?  I recommend The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson. Check it out of your library, or find it at your local bookstore.  It's a great read.  Just watch those pinchy parts.