Portland High Goes to Camp

Portland High Goes to Camp

Nine students from Portland High School received full scholarships to spend a week immersed in the beautiful places protected by the Wells Reserve last summer.

The students enjoyed a bird banding demonstration, searched for butterflies and dragonflies, kayaked on the Little River, created block prints, and learned about local forests and marine life—all with the support of local scientists and educators.

Their teacher, Tom Talarico, first brought students to the Reserve on a field trip in 2019 and later participated in a Teachers on the Estuary (TOTE) workshop.

“We had been hoping for an opportunity to do more with Tom and his students,” says Wells Reserve Education Director Suzanne Kahn. “Thanks to funding from the Maine Community Foundation‘s Tenny Donnelley Fund, we were able to provide a week of camp with full scholarships for all participants.”

Not only did the students learn from camp leaders—leaders were able to learn from the students as well. It was a reminder that each person who visits the Wells Reserve is unique, with their own past experiences spending time outdoors. Not everyone connects with Nature in the same way.

One student shared, “I loved it here! The animals, flowers, the birds—I would do this again!” Another said, “We learned so many things! I did an activity (kayaking) I never imagined I could do. I was so scared, but it was so enjoyable.”

The camp was made possible through generous donations. Maine Community Foundation funded the camp registration fees, LL Bean donated binoculars for the students to keep afterwards, and bus transportation between Portland and Wells was paid for in full by the Charles and Rebecca S. Richardson Lifelong Learning Fund.

None of it would have been possible without educators at the Wells Reserve and Portland High School, as well as guest presenters from York County Audubon, Biodiversity Research Institute, and Coast Encounters.

Campers explored Laudholm Beach, searched for critters in the intertidal zone, and used newly gifted binoculars to view nesting terns and plovers at the river mouth.

Students enjoyed a bird banding demonstration, filled with interesting avian information from Biodiversity Research Institute scientist Evan Adams—one lucky student released a newly banded catbird!

York County Audubon expert birder Monica Grabin led the campers on a bird walk, and Sue Bickford facilitated a hands-on search for butterflies and dragonflies in the fields.

Kayaking on the Little River was a highlight and a first for most campers. By the end of the trip, they paddled like pros. After lunch, students created their own block prints at picnic tables outside, surrounded by nature for inspiration.

Eileen Willard led one of her wonderful tree walks for the students, who were fascinated to learn that trees have genders.

The students searched the pilings for signs of life and dock discoveries at Wells Harbor.

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Fitbit for Lobsters?

Fitbit for Lobsters?

One for the sad but true column: a small fraction of caught lobsters don’t survive the journey between trap to pot. Known as “shrink,” these untimely deaths have been a thorn in the side of managers of Maine’s most prized fishery for years.

Even a small decline in production is a “big deal” for the most valuable single-species fishery in the country, according to Annie  Tselikis, the Executive Director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association. The lobster harvest nets about $667 million annually, and in 2016, more than 80 percent of U.S. lobster landings were in Maine.

Why do some of these delicious crustaceans persist while others perish? Scientists at the Wells Reserve in southern Maine are working with a group of researchers at the University of Maine and industry partners to test some low cost, high capability tech that they hope will provide some answers. The Crustacean Heart and Activity Tracker (C-HAT) monitors the stress that lobsters experience during the journey from capture to kitchen—critical information for lobster suppliers who want to improve survival rates, save money, and prevent waste.

“If we are dealing with even a slight decline in production from the harvest sector, we have to do everything to address it through the supply chain,” says Tselikis.

Each C-HAT houses an infrared heartbeat sensor, accelerometer for tracking movement, temperature and light sensors, microcontroller, battery, and SD card for data storage. It’s all packaged in a waterproof container small enough to be strapped to the lobster’s shell. There it functions as a kind of Fitbit that records the animal’s heart rate and motion multiple times per second as it moves from live tank on the boat to storage crate to delivery truck to wholesaler or processor.

At the end of the ride, the C-HAT is recovered and its data downloaded. This information is supplemented by data collected by another sensor package built by the Wells researchers. The Mocklobster is a device that measures temperature, dissolved oxygen, ambient light, immersion, and movement in the captured lobsters’ surroundings. Together, the C-HAT and Mocklobster datasets are helping the Reserve team understand the lobster’s physiological responses to changes in ambient conditions, such as temperature swings or rough handling.

“It’s really great to be involved in a project like this, because it’s not only cool science, but also could produce real, tangible benefits throughout the industry,” says Dr. Gutzler. “It’s early days yet, but we’re hopeful these datasets will allow us to identify possible places in the supply chain where we can suggest improved handling practices to maximize lobster survival and value.”

The C-HAT has become a key tool for a project funded by NOAA Fisheries, involving University of Maine collaborators and lobster industry partners: Improving Business Practices to Reduce Mortality in the Lobster Supply Chain.

Dr. Ben Gutzler positions a tracker so one of its specialized sensors can pick up the lobster’s heartbeat.

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New England Marshes Need Support

New England Marshes Need Support

Scientists at the Wells and Great Bay Reserves monitor a marsh in Maine’s Webhannet Estuary

New England salt marshes are losing the battle to sea level rise, according to a regional study led by the University of New Hampshire along with four National Estuarine Research Reserves. The study presents a clear call to action for coastal land managers from Rhode Island to Maine: these ‘superhero’ habitats do so much for us—from storing carbon and reducing water pollution to protecting fisheries and mitigating the impacts of storms—and now, they need our help.

“This is critical information for coastal resource managers and decision makers, especially those who might be uncertain whether their local marshes are at risk,” says Chris Peter, research coordinator at New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve. “Our research indicates that we can anticipate even greater salt marsh loss with rising sea levels, and managers should take steps to help marshes cope.”

According to Peter, the research points to a need for resource managers to consider in-marsh restoration techniques, like boosting elevation with sediment and reducing historical ditching. Another option, when feasible, is to allow marshes to naturally migrate upslope and inland  by removing barriers and protecting adjacent land.

The study synthesized information from Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Reserve, Massachusetts’s Waquoit Bay Reserve, New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve, and Maine’s Wells Reserve. It builds on a decade-long project in which 20 Reserves are collecting long-term data on tidal marsh health in an unprecedented effort to study, compare, understand, and protect these valuable habitats. 

“This New England study is the first to use long term, on-the-ground monitoring across a region to show the vulnerability of salt marshes to sea level rise,” says Peter. 

The team analyzed salt marsh plant communities at the four Reserves. They found that, across New England, salt marshes are shrinking in response to greater flooding and an overall wetter environment. Today’s marshes cover roughly half the area of historic marshes and the region is likely to lose an estimated 60 to 90% of existing marshes in the coming century.

Marsh vegetation dies off when it cannot keep up with the frequency and intensity of tidal inundations. One monitoring location on Narragansett Bay went from being predominantly vegetated to almost barren in just five years. At other places, the plant communities are shifting to more saltwater-tolerant plants.

Researchers and volunteers monitor long-term salt marsh plots on New Hampshire’s Great Bay.

The researchers found that southern New England’s marshes are declining at a faster rate than northern New England, possibly due to the smaller tidal range, which makes rising seas proportionally more significant. 

The results from this study, made possible by the NERRS unique and systematic data-collection methods, will help to inform how decision makers protect and manage salt marshes in the face of rising seas and other climate threats.

Where the Land Meets the Sea

Where the Land Meets the Sea

“Perhaps, like me, you feel that the salt of our coast is alive in your very cells—that you belong to it.” Poet Megan Grumbling, who has a generational connection to Maine’s Wells Reserve, is overflowing with gratitude for the coast and the people who help protect it.

Megan Grumbling is a Maine poet, writer, and teacher. She grew up along the headwater streams that feed the Wells Reserve’s estuaries—and are the source of the appreciation and inspiration she finds in the natural world.

Her father, Dr. Owen Grumbling, was one of the founders of Maine’s Wells Reserve in the early 1980s. The founder and first chair of the Reserve’s Education Advisory Committee, Dr. Grumbling went on to protect more than a thousand acres of land in the Reserve’s three watersheds as the Chair of the Wells Conservation Commission.

As part of their 50th anniversary celebration, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust—one of Wells Reserve’s key conservation partners—collaborated with Megan to produce a video essay to mark the occasion

For those who love Maine’s Reserve, and coasts and estuaries everywhere, these images and words reinforce what we do everyday and the love we have for these special places.

***

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Take-out Research

Take-out Research

Sylvia and Lee Pollock continue their volunteer research for Maine’s Wells Reserve from their kitchen, while following the safety protocols regarding Covid-19. Photo and story courtesy of the Pollocks, originally published in The Wrack.

The advice is clear for those of us in our seventies: Stay at home and minimize contact with the outside world for the time being. But wait—we’ve come to love our once-a-week volunteering visits to the reserve’s research lab, where we have been sorting and identifying plankton from Wells Harbor for 2+ years. What are we going to do now?

Ta-da! With the ready approval of the research director, we borrowed some essential equipment from the lab and are continuing our project at the kitchen table of our “bunker”! Research assistant Laura Crane lives a quarter mile from us here in Kittery and has been a willing go-between. Laura keeps us supplied with needed items (preservative, glassware), new samples to pick, and sometimes even cookies!

This “forced” block of remote volunteering time gives us a chance to work on a useful photographic technique, called focus stacking, which provides much better images of the micro-critters that are the subject of our work. Using tools embedded in Adobe Photoshop, we can combine multiple shots of a single specimen, each focused on some particular detail, into one blended image that displays the best in-focus portions from a whole series of shots.

A single photomicrograph typically has a very narrow depth of field; only a small portion of the specimen is in focus while everything else is blurry. A focus-stacked image provides a composite shot with much more of the subject in good focus, creating a 3D effect. You can see the extra detail in these example images of two common crabs in their larval stage.

The two prominent spines characteristic of Jonah crab (Cancer borealis) larvae are clearly visible in this focus-stacked image, a composite of 19 photographs.

Asian shore crab (Hemigrapsus sanguineus) larvae lack spines but exhibit other interesting details in this focus-stacked composite of 38 photographs. Image by Lee and Sylvia Pollock.

As the Gulf of Maine experiences unprecedented warming, the reserve’s lengthy plankton monitoring project supplies an especially valuable time-series of year-round data on fish and crab presence and abundance. We were working on samples from fall 2019 as the COVID-19 advisories became more dire and know the research folks will keep an unbroken stream of plankton samples coming back from Wells Harbor to the research lab. We’re glad to be plugging along from home, helping to avoid a backlog of unsorted material when this pandemic finally subsides.

The research team thinks we are doing them a favor by helping out with the picking and keying. The truth is we are the beneficiaries! Not only do we feel useful, we get to keep contributing to the important work of the Wells Reserve. We’ll get through this bizarre period with a project on track and our sanity intact!

AmeriCorps Works at Wells

AmeriCorps Works at Wells

The Americorps Cedar 1 team taking a “Wells-deserved” break from working on a bog boardwalk through Wells Reserve conservation land. Photos courtesy of AmeriCorps NCCC members.

The fact that summer is a great time to #EscapetheIndoors was not lost on a team of young AmeriCorps volunteers who were at Maine’s Wells Reserve last June. During their stay, they thinned and planted trees, pulled invasive plants, improved trails, built a picnic table, and assisted with numerous other projects that benefited the Reserve and the surrounding community.

“I got a lot of experience from the variety of work at the Wells Reserve and I am very grateful for it,” says Dustin Posick, a team member from New Smyrna Beach, Florida, who joined AmeriCorps because he wanted to meet new people, travel, and help where needed. Dustin was one of ten volunteers who came from as far away as Redmond, Washington, and San Diego, California, to lend a hand.

AmeriCorps team member Dustin Posnik in the shop at the Wells Reserve.

“AmeriCorps teams always bring a youthful enthusiasm that invigorates our entire volunteer community,” says Lynne Benoit-Vachon, volunteer coordinator at Wells Reserve. “They go deep and accomplish a lot in a short amount of time.”

AmeriCorps Cedar 1 team focused on the 36-acre Yankee Woodlot, which the Reserve uses to demonstrate sustainable management practices that protect water quality, enhance wildlife habitat, and provide high quality timber. Among other tasks, they worked alongside Team Lorax—a group of Reserve volunteers—to remove invasive plants species from the Woodlot. They also helped the Wells Conservation Commission build a 76-foot bog bridge to prevent erosion on a wetlands wildlife trail near the reserve.

“It was great to see the mix of young people from different parts of the country experiencing Maine for the first time,” adds Lynne. “They not only advanced the Reserve’s restoration and natural resource management goals, they improved the experience of future visitors who can enjoy being outside in these beautiful places.”

Has your Reserve hosted an Americorps team? If not, be sure to check out the sponsorship opportunities offered by AmeriCorps NCCC Program, which supports service projects that address critical needs related to natural and other disasters, infrastructure improvement, environmental stewardship and conservation, energy conservation, and urban and rural development.

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