Monday, November 25, 2013

Pemaquid Point and the King Eider Pub

Pemaquid Point Light.  Note the wind is blowing so hard the fence has fallen over.
It's cold here in Maine.  Really cold.  Bone-chilling, tooth-rattling, booger-freezing cold.  When it gets cold like this, there are two choices:  hide at home in front of the woodstove, or pile on another layer and get outside.  Sometimes, I opt for the former.  Today, Damon and I dug out the long-johns and headed to Pemaquid Point.

I knew Pemaquid would be spectacular.  From a marine ecologist's point of view, it's hallowed ground.  A lot of what we understand about how the rocky intertidal ecosystem works was first studied here by some of the great names in ecology:  Menge, Sutherland, Lubchenco, Bertness.  These scientists chose Pemaquid Point because of the high-intensity of wave action on the rocks here.  Few mobile consumers can withstand the force of the waves, so this is a great place to contrast with more protected sites and ask questions about the influence of snails, seastars, urchins, and crabs (which turn out to be considerable).

Monhegan Island
When we got there, it was about 25 degrees with wind gusting to 40 mph (it was literally difficult to keep my balance at times), but the place was so amazing we stayed there for over half an hour.  The rocks were nothing short of amazing.  I'm no geologist, but I can tell you the place is something special.  It looks like a some work of modern art.  Long veins of rock run parallel to each other, gently sloping from the cliffside to the ocean.  Fifty shades of gray?  Pemaquid has many, many more, each lined up in a geological spectacle.

The wind was blowing from the Northwest; from land to sea, so we could safely approach the water.  (The rocks are VERY dangerous in storms when the wind direction is from sea to land.  Be careful.)  We quickly descended the rocks to get a look at the organisms near the water's edge.  Unfortunately it was about two hours after low tide, so we only got a look at the top of the intertidal zone.    Thousands of Littorina saxatilis were crammed into crevices above the tide's reach.  These tiny snails are champions at withstanding desiccation, and rely on splash from waves for a little bit of moisture as they graze on the black Calothrix coating the top of the intertidal.  Below the Calothrix, thick carpets of barnacles covered the rocks, with blue mussels crowded into every crack and crevice.

The thick carpet of barnacles at the top of the intertidal zone.

There were two age classes of barnacles; probably this year's and last year's.

Littorina saxatilis by the thousands.
The tidepools were spectacular.  Some of them were frozen over, and since there was no evidence of freshwater sources, we decided it must be cold enough to freeze the salt water in them.  Some of the pools were full of bright green Enteromorpha intestinalis (peeking out from under the ice); others had a nice collection of mussels, Irish moss, and Ulva.  We worked our way down to one that was pink with Lithothamnium coraline algae as well.  It was too cold to take a really close look at the pools, plus the tide was coming in, but it's on our list to come back in better weather, when we can take our time and poke around properly.

Frozen tidepool with Enteromorpha intestinalis.

Low tidepool dominated by Lithothamnium.
I really believe this is a can't miss for anyone interested in the ocean.  Not only is the biology amazing; the lighthouse was a beauty (and is open many days in summer).  The people of Maine chose Pemaquid Point Light as the image for our state quarter, with good reason.  It's the quintessential Maine coastal scene.  The views were terrific.  Monhegan floated on the horizon to our east, and the Gulf of Maine spread out below the cliffs.  A gannet sailed by, searching the waves for fish, and eiders floated along the water's edge, seemingly unperturbed by the cold.

Eventually the weather got the best of us.  Despite the many layers I was swaddled in, I realized I was having trouble breathing properly, and my hands began to ache terribly.  We hoofed it to the car, where I whined about my fingers for a good five minutes, and asked if we were going to get hot chocolate to aid our recovery.

After a few detours (a visit to Colonial Pemaquid where we didn't have much interest in leaving the car and an aborted short cut where a fallen tree blocked the road) we headed to Damariscotta and hit one of my favorite pubs:  the King Eider.  Our neck of the woods has a lot to offer in the restaurant department, but a cozy pub (that's student-free) isn't to be found.  After a cold day on the shore, this was the perfect medicine.  The terrific lentil burger they made me was perfectly accompanied by a glass of cider and the Jets-Ravens game (bonus; the Jets were losing).  All in all a great way to spend an early winter day.

Now that we're home, though, the dog and I are taking advantage of the woodstove.  Damon just checked the weather and tells me tonight's low will be 11; with winds at 20-25 mph and gusts to 45.  Trees and power lines are down all over the state, and plenty of folks have lost power on this bitter cold night.  For most of us up here, no power means no furnace or boiler; there are lots of people huddled around their woodstove a little more closely than me tonight.  So we'll put another log on the fire; pull the blankets up to our chins, listen to the wind howl in the dooryard, count our blessings, and dream of a trip back to Pemaquid Point.

To get there:  From US 1 in Newcastle, take US1A into Damariscotta and turn left onto Rt 129, Bristol Road.  Proceed south 2 ¾ miles and turn right onto Rt 130 (still Bristol Road). Follow this 11 1/2 miles and bear left at the fork of Bristol Road and Pemaquid Loop Road. In summer, a small fee is charged for visiting, and a museum is open. Leashed dogs welcome.

Friday, November 22, 2013

An Autumn Day at Mackerel Cove

It's not one of the most photographed places in Maine for nothing:

Dory would have liked if she'd been there, but the couch needed to be kept warm.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Another Cliff Walk -- Giant Steps

Tidepools; note the differences in the close pools vs the far pools.  Pools in the high intertidal tend to be dominated by Enteromorpha intestinalis, but in low pools, Littorina littorea preferentially eat this algae and increase diversity.
Last week my poor students had their lab exam.  This exam is stressful for them, and a ton of work for me.  Setting up 13 stations with organisms involves a lot of making lists, checking them twice, and collecting a wide range of seaweeds, plants and animals from the habitats we've studied over the semester.  However, it's my last hoorah for getting out in the field and enjoying the coast -- especially when the weather is halfway decent.

One of my go-to spots for not just collecting, but teaching about the rocky intertidal ecology of Maine, is Giant Steps (or Giant Stairs, depending on who you talk to).  Giant Steps is one of the most spectacular places in Maine, with amazing geology, highly diverse tidepools, and classic scenery -- and it's accessible to the public! 

Getting out for some painting on this warm fall day.

You can really see zonation here.
The importance of Giant Steps as a natural treasure was recognized early on, and in 1910 was donated to the town of Harpswell for use by the public by Captain Henry and Joanna Sinnett.  (I love you, Sinnetts!)  Another lot at the southern end of the shoreline was donated to the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust by the Estate of Adelaide H. McIntosh (I love you too), allowing visitors to make a loop and walk back to their cars by the road. 

I'm not much of a rock lover, but even a dummy like me can appreciate the singular importance of this site for its geology.  The Steps themselves (you'll know you're there by the plaque in front of them) are nothing short of amazing, looking like a sculpture created by a gargantuan artist.  (BTW, don't try to climb down them -- they are slippery and dangerous!) 

Those tidepools are beckoning!  Put on your boots!

The Giant Steps themselves.
This is a terrific place to observe several aspects of rocky intertidal ecology.  You can compare the communities of wave protected vs. wave exposed sites easily.  At the northern end of Giant Steps, there is a nice protected bay, where wave action in minimized by geographic orientation and several ridges that protect the area.  (Look for a small trail on your left, immediately after "Giant Steps Access:  Caution Poison Ivy" sign, at the bottom of the hill.  And watch for poison ivy!)  This bay is characterized by Ascophyllum nodosum, which can't tolerate high wave action, but where it thrives it provides a cooling algal canopy.  Very little zonation is apparent here, as is typical of wave protected sites. 

Look on the top of the first ridge east of this bay -- there are many small indentations in the rock that are filled with anemones!  (Look under any seaweed covering them.)  If you climb over the ridges to the east of this area, there are outstanding and relatively safe tidepools to explore, and deep clefts in the rock that often are home to seastars and sea urchins. 

Further to the east, you approach the more wave exposed portion of the rocky intertidal.  This area is characterized by distinct zonation of organisms -- with more physiologically hardy organisms (blue-green algae Calothrix and Semibalanus balanoides barnacles) at higher elevations and better competitors (look especially for the deep red layer of Chondrus crispus Irish moss) nearer the water.  You can access this area, but use extreme caution as wave action is dangerous.

Tidepools in the area are nothing short of amazing.  Take your time; observe carefully, and you'll see some amazing things.  There are tidepools dominated by bright green Enteromorpha intestinalis at the highest elevations, tidepools with high diversity at mid elevations, and tidepools dominated by Corallina at low elevations.  Checking them all out at low tide is wonderful.

The path.

Have I said how much I love Land Trusts?
At the far southern end of the trail, you can go cross-country on the "Gully Trail" to access a narrow cleft in the rock that apparently has a "thunder hole" in rough weather (although I don't know anyone who's ever seen it).  From the path, look for red blazes -- which are really just red dashes painted on the rocks -- and stay on the trail to avoid trespassing on private property.   This takes you to the "Gully", which is really beautiful. 

Nice little cove.

The Gully.  This is spectacular in a storm I bet!
To Get There:  From US 1 in Brunswick, take the Cooks Corner/Rt 24 exit, and go south on Rt 24 for 14.5 miles, to Washington Street (located on your left, just after Mackerel Cove).  On Washington; bear right at the fork in the road and park at the tiny Episcopal Church.  Parking is limited; DO NOT park here Sunday mornings and DO NOT park on the street.  You will be towed.  If you need to, you can park at Mackerel Cove park and walk to Giant Stairs.  From the parking lot, walk downhill to the path.  You can walk the short loop; proceeding south on the trail takes you to road access at the Macintosh Lot and you can get back to the parking area that way.

Come at low tide, and do not collect organisms unless you have a permit.  Dogs are permitted on leash!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Moon snails and the biggest foot ever

Lunatia heros.  Moon god.  Quite a name for quite an animal.

Last week my marine bio lab ventured out into the mudflats.  Besides being our messiest lab, it's often the one where we find the most interesting things, despite my students' trepidation beforehand.

I give a prize for the muddiest student.  This year there were several contenders, although the winner went above and beyond by both losing her boots and falling over; completely encasing her bottom half in thick, anaerobic mud.  She was a good sport and smiled about it as we hosed her off afterwards. 

I also give a prize for the student who finds the coolest organism.  Really, I'm always rooting for someone to find us a moon snail.  Some years it happens; most years it doesn't.  Imagine my excitement when I myself came across a nice little 1 1/2 inch moon snail; just sitting on the surface with its operculum mostly closed up.  I grabbed that bad boy and proclaimed I might just give the prize to myself.  My students weren't too impressed though; it didn't look like much since its operculum was almost completely closed.  Just a hint of the foot peeked out.  Little did they suspect what a moon snail is really all about.

My students met that challenge though.  Not five minutes later one of them called over "What's this?"  She was striding towards the class in her boots, holding up a monster moon snail; dripping wet and trailing a giant foot under it.  That foot got their attention.  It was as big as my palm, and when we put the snail in a bucket it started to march around, antennae out and foot taking up most of the small pail.

Moon snails are tremendous predators.  They move just under the surface, with only the top of their shells exposed, searching for their prey -- preferably a nice soft-shell clam; Mya arenaria.  When it finds a clam, the snail grips it in a deadly embrace with its enormous foot, and begins to drill a hole in the clam using its rasp-like tongue (called a radula) and some acidic spit.  Once the shell is breached, the snail releases a digestive enzyme right into the clams shell, turning it into soup, and sucking up the delicious chowder.

Now I have two very nice moon snails in my teaching tanks, and a bunch of soft-shell clams I collected for feeding them.

What's the prize you ask?  Gift certificates to Gelato Fiasco!  Too bad I didn't win after all . . . . Dory would have loved a cup.

Friday, November 8, 2013

More Perkins Cove and Marginal Way

Nice touch.

Ooooo! I'm an adult!

Coming in from a stormy sea.

The foot drawbridge.

Hot chocolate and a lovely spot to sit down.

Cairns, all over the seashore.

Notice the Rolls Royce in the driveway of this "cottage".

We KNOW why you took this side trail.

Check out the marsh.

Twenty one commercial boats, three tour boats, and two sailboats.

Here comes the sun.
And now, your moment of Dory.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Marginal Way on a Cloudy Fall Day

Maine's a big place.  With a lot of ocean.  And try as I might, I rarely get beyond the confines of Casco Bay.  But when I do, it's worth the effort.  For several weeks, I've been wanting to get down to Marginal Way in Ogunquit.  The 1 1/4 mile path along the rocky coast is a place where development worked the way it should:  preserving public access to the coast. 

In 1925 (back when the rich were seriously rich) Josiah Chase Jr gave the first parcel of Marginal Way to the Town of Ogunquit.  Chase, a civil war veteran, Bates College graduate, and developer, was designing a subdivision in Ogunquit, and originally intended for the path to be common space for residents only.  His friend, Raymond Brewster, a local architect, had a larger vision though, and talked Chase into preserving the path for public access.  Other landowners followed suit, and today Marginal Way is a world-class destination for ocean lovers.

This weekend Damon and I headed down to Ogunquit to enjoy a Fall day.  We've been perched on the edge of winter for several days here in Maine, and Sunday seemed like it might be the season's opening salvo.  The day dawned grey and cold, although a weak sun was trying to fight its way through the gloom.  We love the Swedes' attitude about winter:  There's no bad weather, just bad clothing.  So we bundled up, piled into the car, and headed south.  My understanding was that dogs were persona non-grata on the path, so Dory stayed home to keep the couch warm (but don't tell her:  dogs are welcome after September 30).

Do NOT park here.

The foot drawbridge.
We parked for free in the Perkins Cove lot and spent some time poking around the waterfront and foot drawbridge.  I was sorely tempted to open the drawbridge, just for fun, but common sense got the better of me and I resisted the urge to push the "open" button.  After a stop to fill up on hot chocolate, we headed out along Marginal Way.

How could anyone not want to push it?
 Although I see the appeal of visiting places like this in the best of weather; there's something about a gloomy ocean that I find very appealing.  The waves crashed; the wind blew; the seabirds floated just outside the surf zone.  Behind us loomed mansions and cottages, all looking rather costly and manicured.  Despite the cool day, there were plenty of people out enjoying the walk.  I can imagine Marginal Way is a bit crowded in summer from the looks of it, so visiting during the lingering fall seemed like a good choice.

We walked into town and over to Ogunquit beach, with its miles of sand and surf.  On our way back, the sun came out and suddenly the waves looked friendlier.  We stripped off layers, strolled along Shore Road,  and decided it was time to get a bite to eat.  Unfortunately, Footbridge Lobster was closing at the end of the day, and had a menu limited to hot dogs and fried fish.  No lobster rolls.  Instead, we ate at MC Perkins Cove, with a lovely view but very few healthy vegetarian options for Sunday Brunch.  I ended up having three lettuce leaves with some croutons and crumbles of Parmesan.  Good, but not $11 bucks good . . . .  I think next time we'll visit the Beachmere Inn, since they seemed to welcome the public with menus posted at its gates along Marginal Way.

They looked at that gull for a very, very long time.

We had the beach to ourselves pretty much!

What?  No lobster?
 How to get there:  From US 1, take Shore Road south and follow signs to Perkins Cove.  Be prepared to pay for parking; even in November the free lot filled quickly and people were using the pay lot.  The path entrance is well marked at the northern end of Oarsweed Cove.  Alternatively, park at Ogunquit Beach and look for the Marginal Way sign on Shore Road.  In summer, trolleys run all along the southern coast of Maine, with a stops at Perkins Cove and Ogunquit, with several free parking options.

There were 21 commercial boats in this tiny cove.  Love the old school wooden ones.