Friday, January 24, 2014

A Tale of Two Tidepools

Every once in a while I like to remember that summer's just a few months away.  Sitting by the wood stove with a dog at my feet, I've been thinking about tidepools in the rocky intertidal zone, remembering sunny warm days by the seaside.  My poor students were forced to spend a perfect fall day at Giant Steps researching tidepools, and it was a fascinating lab.  It turns out tidepools vary greatly depending on their tidal height (or elevation), and it's easy to see the differences.

The tidal height of a tidepool affects how long it's separated from the ocean.  Pools near the top of the tidal range are rarely submerged by the tides, whereas those at the bottom are submerged most of the time.  This affects the water chemistry in the pool.  Some of this is obvious, like temperature.  On a hot summer day, a tidepool at the top of the rocky intertidal warms up rapidly, and is downright hot if you're an animal who's used to being in the cold ocean of Maine.  This works the same way in winter -- tidepools commonly get very cold in winter compared to surrounding oceans.  So tidepools at the top of the intertidal zone get hotter and colder than those at the bottom.  Other things are different too, though we can't see them.  Oxygen and carbon dioxide will differ, and pH will too.  As seaweeds photosynthesize during the day, oxygen increases and CO2 decreases; this increases pH (making it less acidic).  On the other hand, don't forget plants have to respire as well as photosynthesize, so at night this is all reversed.

A tidepool at the top of Pemaquid Point, frozen over.  This is rare lower in the intertidal.
Although we can't see differences in water chemistry, it's easy to see their effects.  Visit any rocky intertidal ecosystem with tidepools and here's what you're likely to see:

Tidepools at Giant Steps.  The one at the top is full of Enteromorpha intestinalis.
Pools near the top of the rocky intertidal will be chock-full of a brilliant green seaweed called Enteromorpha intestinalis -- and little else.  Move down the intertidal zone and tidepools will look very different.  There won't be a speck of Enteromorpha to be seen.  Instead the pool is likely to have a greater diversity of seaweeds, and those seaweeds are likely to be dominated by Chondrus crispus -- Irish moss.  You'll probably see a lot more animals in those lower tidepools too -- common periwinkles, slipper shells, and mussels.

Common periwinkle; Littorina littorea.  Always hungry.
Much of the difference in tidepools can be attributed to the innocent-looking common periwinkle.  Periwinkles are ravenous, and it turns out they have very particular tastes.  Enteromorpha?  Delicious.  Chondrus?  Not so much.  Wherever common periwinkles are found, Enteromorpha is not -- it's just too darn tasty to stick around long.  Those lower tidepools turn out to be very comfortable homes for periwinkles, but the ones at the top have water chemistry that excludes snails.  Enteromorpha has a grand time up there -- so much so that it excludes other seaweeds, and animals for that matter.  It's competitively dominant.  Down lower, Enteromorpha gets gobbled up, allowing many other species to grow without competition.  Hence the high diversity.

An Enteromorpha-dominated tidepool at a high tidal height

A high-diversity tidepool at a low tidal height
Jane Lubchenco laid much of the ground work for our understanding the relationship between snails, seaweed, and diversity.  Looking out on intertidal ecosystems, it's hard for me to imagine common periwinkles are an invasive species -- they are ubiquitous.  It's literally impossible to walk around without stepping on them.  Given their major influence on just these tidepools, I have to wonder what rocky intertidal ecosystems looked like 300 years ago.  Would every tidepool have looked like those up at the top of the ecosystem?  Were organisms like slipper shells rare?  It's doubtful I'll be out in the tidepools until it warms up.  Until then, the Enteromorpha filled pools will be frozen, and the periwinkles will be munching away at whatever they can find in lower pools.

A very very low tidepool; dominated by coralline algae (Corallina officinalis).  What's up with that?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Portland Head Light in Snow. 'Nuf Said.

It's hard to tell if this could be any prettier in summer.
Yes, boats really do rely on these lights.  A dragger making its way in to port.
The keeper's house, light, and whistle room to the far right.
That says "May Cause Hearing Loss".
See that white box with the two little tubes sticking out?  That senses visibility and automatically turns on the horn.  One of those tubes shoots light out into the air; the other detects visible water droplets (fog).
They mean it.  They really, really mean it.
Annie C Maguire wrecked here on Christmas Eve of 1886.  All hands saved; they simply put a ladder over the wreck.
Lots of photographers on a day like this.  A dummy like me can take a good photo of Portland Head!
I love the ocean in winter.
Money shot.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Ice fishing shacks before and after the storm

In Mid-coast Maine, there's no surer sign that winter has settled in than the arrival of ice-fishing shacks.  They may look a little catty-wumpus, made of whatever materials were most convenient at the time -- no architect would admire them.  But for many, they are a winter home, and an entire temporary community springs up from them.  The main quarry under the ice is smelt, a small anadromous fish that runs up the creeks in spring.  Fried up, these are high cuisine during a Maine winter.

In the past week we've had two big rain storms.  The first, on Saturday, seemed like it might flood the camp off River Rd in Brunswick, but turned out to be no big deal.  I ran down by the shacks on Sunday (wishing I had my camera; the light was terrific).  The ice was firm; people were out fishing; and an ice skater was out in the warm sun.  But yesterday's storm was too much.  As we drove over the green bridge from Topsham to Brunswick yesterday morning, my husband peered through the downpour at the shacks, and said "I'm glad I don't have a shack out there.  Won't be many left tomorrow."  The water was absolutely tearing over the dam and down the river.  It didn't seem like there could be any survivors.

And yet.  When I went down this morning before work, there were huge chunks of ice around the shacks, but none looked worse for wear.  Some of the fishermen anticipated the storm and pulled their shacks up to shore; belted around the waist and moored to trees.  It's going to be a warm week, but you can count on temperatures dropping again, as we have many weeks of winter ahead of us.  They'll wait for cold, pull them back out, and get fishing again, cheering as the thermometer plummets.  For the rest of us, we'll watch to see when they pull them off the ice for good -- knowing that we can count on spring arriving only once that happens.

Before the storm, a regular little town.  Tidy as any gated community:

After the storm.  No, the porta-potty doesn't go on the ice, and no fish are pulled up through the hole in it!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Lobsters and football

I'm embarrassed to say it, but Damon and I are superstitious.  Not about the small things, like seven years of bad luck, but about things that are Really Important.  Things like the Patriots in the playoffs. And things that work -- eating New England seafood during playoff games.

Chowder used to be our standby playoff food.  Nothing is more New England than clams and potatoes and cream.  Unfortunately, our arteries have grown a bit old for chowder (which must, must be made with cream).  So this past weekend, we prepared for the playoff game by stopping at Harbor Fish Market and picking up some lobsters (little guys and gals).  And as kick off approached, we fired up the lobster cooker and tossed those bad boys in.
I'm a lefty!                                            I'm a righty!

The folks at Harbor Fish were kind enough to give me lobsters that were both lefties and righties.  Lobsters have two types of claws:  crushers, which are full of slow-twitch muscle, not fast but very strong with great endurance, and siezers (or pinchers), which are full of fast twitch muscle, fast without the endurance.  Together they're the perfect combination for catching and eating prey.  Lobster larvae are ambidextrous but juveniles develop a difference in claws soon after they settle to the benthos.
Damon is the lobster chef in our family.  (Dory is skeptical of them.)  He is particular about how they're cooked.  Never boil them. Steam them, best accomplished by filling your pot with just over an inch of water and using a steamer or something else in the pot to hold the lobsters over the water. When the water is really boiling, toss in your lobsters (we leave the bands on) and cover it well. Watch the pot; otherwise it boils over and makes a smelly mess. Leave your lobsters in the pot for 16-18 minutes (depending on how many, how large they are, and whether they're soft-shell or hard-shell).  The real test of whether they're done is their color -- they should be bright red, no brown or green showing.  When done, eat with a bowl of the hot water to rinse off the tamale (the green stuff on the tail), and if your cardiologist isn't looking, some melted butter (but really, lobster doesn't need it).  Serve with beer or Vinho Verde (my very, very favorite wine).

A male.  The very top pair of swimmerets are larger than on females.
The before photo.  Their antennae have been removed (before we got them).
So, does the New England food thing work?  Well, we did win.  And we did score a touchdown the moment we cracked our lobsters open.  Maybe it was a highly skilled coach and quarterback.  Maybe they finally found their rhythm.  Maybe it was just their night to win.  But maybe it was the lobster. Just in case, we're going to have to keep up our seafood habits.  It's our responsibility, isn't it?  (On the menu next week, for the AFC Championship versus Manning and the Broncos:  New England scallop sliders with guacamole or bahn mi marinated veggies.  We're going to need all the help we can get!)

After.  On it's way to ensuring the Patriots' victory.  Like a pagan sacrifice to the gods to bring rain.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Reading and writing

I've been using the wood stove a lot this week, when the dog will share it with me.  With school out and some serious ice and snow glazing the roads, it's a great time to curl up with a good book.  Plus we're about to head off for a quick vacation, sailing in Florida, and I'm hoping there'll be some time for reading in between the hoisting sail and sipping rum-drinks under the stars.  Here are a few books I'm enjoying right now:

Love, sex, and scientific mysteries.  Robo-lobsters.  Barbie lobsters.  What more can a gal ask for?  The Secret Life of Lobsters has it all.  I'm most of the way done with this book, which tells the story of lobster biology and management from several points of view -- both from fishermen on Little Cranberry Island, and from various scientists involved in the early stages of understanding the biology of our crustacean friend.  Anyone who loves lobster, or is interested in the marine heritage of Maine, will enjoy this book.

Connie Small was born in 1901 and grew up in Lubec, wh ich at the time was full of fish-processing plants and fishermen.  Her father worked for the lifesaving service, and many of her relatives were ship captains and lighthouse keepers.  When she married Elson Small in 1920, they went off for a life keeping lights up and down the coast of Maine.  In The Lighthouse Keeper's Wife, Connie Small recounts their life on remote islands, working against the elements to light the lamp each night.  The book is full of anecdotes, but it memorializes a profession long gone today, often with delicious philosophical reflections.

On Seguin Island, Connie Small described the moment in the evening when all the keepers up and down the coast lit their lamps (taking pride in waiting until just the right moment, not lighting them a minute too soon):  I loved being in the tower at sunset.  When I took the lens cover off and the light flashed, I could begin counting from Portland to Pemaquid as almost simultaneously the lights came on -- thirteen of them. It was like saying "hello," hello," "hello," all down the coast.  This little book reveals a world few knew even when all the lights up and down the coast were manned, and I think modern readers will enjoy looking into this rare aspect of our state's history.

Maine is the only state with an elver fishery, for better or for worse.  I'm one to think it should be better managed, as right now it seems to be the Wild West.  (Cold River Cash.  Need I say more?)  But what do I know?

Soon I'll know a lot more.  Eels have crazy biology -- eggs are laid far out to sea, babies are carried along the Gulf Stream for up to a year, and then they swim upriver and transform into eels.  They live adult lives in fresh water, then head back out to the sea to spawn, then die.  I'm hoping this will be a fun read with as much detail as The Secret Life of Lobsters.  Then maybe I'll have the heart to watch the Animal Planet series.  But probably not.

I just picked this little book up from my favorite local bookstore, Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick. I'm a total sucker for guidebooks, and this one looks promising.  I've already learned quite a lot about chickadees -- did you know they stockpile seeds in summer, hiding them in cracks in tree bark and other hidey-holes, and eating them in winter?  And they can "hibernate" for shore periods of time when it gets really cold?

This book highlights terrific natural spots in my area, and includes several I've put on my "must visit" list.
Sitting at an oceanfront bar in Florida, enjoying a fascinating article . . . .
Besides all the reading, I've been tooting my own horn.  This month my piece about operating sailboats around whales ("Whale Etiquette") came out in Cruising World magazine.  Just a small article, but I'm still really pleased about it!  Toot!  Toot!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Twenty Reasons to Love Casco Bay

Evening falls on the Harraseeket River.
I count myself as lucky.  Not the least of my blessings is calling Maine my home; and especially Casco Bay.  My free time is often spent out enjoying the bay in some way -- boating, hiking, gobbling down a lobster roll at a seaside restaurant, wading through tidepools looking for that special find, or simply sitting by the water and contemplating life.  The bay's become a part of my life, as the best places often do, and it's my favorite part of Maine.

In no particular order, here are 20 reasons we all should love Casco Bay:

1)  Casco Bay is roughly 20 miles across, nestled between Cape Elizabeth and Cape Small.  In the middle of the entrance lies "Halfway Rock", an isolated lighthouse the operates under some of the most severe conditions.  

2)  There are seven lighthouses total:  the twin Cape Elizabeth lights, Portland Head light, Spring Point Ledge light, Portland Breakwater (Bug) light, Ram Island light, Halfway Rock light, and the tiny Pocahontas light on Great Diamond Island (at six feet tall the smallest lighthouse recognized by the Coast Guard).   

3)  The Calendar Islands are found in Casco Bay -- so called because there's an island for every day of the year (the actual number of islands is still disputed, but there are several hundred).

4)  There are five year-round island communities in Casco Bay -- Peak's Island; Chebeague Island; Cliff Island; Great Diamond Island; and Long Island.

5)  Casco Bay is home to "Junk of Pork", "Pound of Tea", and "Sow and Pigs" Islands.

6)  Walter Cronkite (amongst many others) said Casco Bay offers some of the best sailing in the world -- and he was the most trusted man in America in his day, so it must be true.

7)  The world's only cribstone bridge connects Bailey and Orr's Islands.

8)  Oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, and kelp are all sustainably cultured in Casco Bay.

9)  Portland, Maine's largest city and port, is part of the Bay.  The town was destroyed several times over its history, first by Native Americans, then by the British, and finally by massive fires.  Despite the bad run of luck, Portland turns out to be pretty darn hip, with a high quality of life rating; low unemployment; a gay-friendly vibe; and some of the country's best restaurants.  

10)  There are still sub-spotting towers in Casco Bay, reminding us of the dangers that visited our coast in World War II.

11)  You can see horseshoe crabs mate at Thomas Point Beach in Brunswick every May and June.

12)  Rear Admiral Peary, who led the expedition that may or may not have first reached the North Pole, retired to Eagle Island in Harpswell.  The site is a State Park that welcomes visitors in summer.

13)  The name Casco is thought to be derived from the Abenaki word aucocisco, which either means "place of herons" or "muddy".

14)  The Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the Harpswell Heritage Trust, the Maine Island Trail Association, the Oceanside Conservation Trust, teh Freeport Conservation Trust, and the Chebeague and Cumberland Land Trust all work to preserve land for future generations in Casco Bay.

15)  The Friends of Casco Bay are vigilant in protecting the natural resources of Bay.

16)  In spring, 50 islands become nesting sites for numerous species of water birds.

17)  Casco Bay is one of 28 "Estuaries of National Significance".  

18)  Harbor porpoises regularly inhabit Casco Bay, and in 2004 a beluga whale, "Poco", visited.  (Unfortunately but not surprisingly Poco didn't make it.)

19)  Several terrific waterfront restaurants can be found in Casco Bay:  Dolphin Marina, Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster, Cooks Lobsterhouse, Estes Lobster House, Holbrooks, Morse's Cribstone Grill, and Sebasco Resort all come to mind.

20)  Casco Bay is mere 107 miles from Boston; 33 miles from Augusta, 106 miles from Bangor, and 319 miles from New York City.