SCORES & OUTDOORS: Porcupines among us; are they a nuisance or necessary?

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Porcupines. Nuisance, or ecological necessity?

It all depends with whom you talk. I know some people who are overrun by the animals to the point where they are raiding the gardens, and having to deal with their dogs being injured by porcupine quills due mostly to their own curiosity. While others find a use for them.

Simply put, porcupines are rodents. That puts them in the same class, and are actually related, with raccoons, rats and beavers. They are indigenous to the Americas, Southern Asia, Europe and Africa. They are the third largest of the rodents, behind the capybara and beaver. They can grow in size to be 25 – 36 inches long with an 8 to 10-inch tail, and weigh from 12 – 35 pounds.

The common porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum, is an herbivore, so look out gardens. It eats leaves, herbs, twigs and green plants. They may eat bark in the winter, evidence of which I have seen in many places. The North American porcupine often climbs trees to find food. Like the raccoon, they are mostly nocturnal, but will sometimes forage for food in the day.

Because of the scarcity of predators, porcupines are plentiful and are not endangered.

The name porcupine comes from Middle French porc espin (spined pig). A regional American name for the animal is quill pig.

The porcupines’ quills, or spines, take on various forms, depending on the species, but all are modified hairs coated with thick plates of keratin, and they are embedded in the skin.

Quills are released by contact with them, or they may drop out when the porcupine shakes its body. The porcupine does not throw quills, but the flailing muscular tail and powerful body may help impel quills deeply into attackers. The quills’ barbed ends expand with moisture and continue to work deeper into flesh. Porcupine quills have mildly antibiotic properties and thus are not infectious. Quills, however, may cause death in animals if they puncture a vital organ or if a muzzle full of quills leads to starvation.

Once embedded, the hollow quills swell, burn and work their way into the flesh every time a victim’s muscles contract, digging a millimeter deeper each hour. Eventually, they emerge through the skin again, some distance from the entry point though sometimes they spear right through the body.

I have had first hand knowledge of how painful a porcupine quill can be. Many years ago, my children had chores to do after they got home from school. One of them was to make sure they picked up after themselves following their after-school snack. Upon returning home from work, I found a folded paper towel on the counter. I grabbed it to crush it into a ball to throw away when this sharp pain shot through my hand. When I unwrapped the towel, I found a porcupine quill inside, but now imbedded in my hand. It turned out my daughter had brought it home from school to show it to me. She obtained the quill from a “show and tell” session at school.

Because they have few effective predators, porcupines are relatively long-lived. The average life span of the porcupine is 7 – 8 years, however, they have lived up to 15 years in the wild, and 18 years in captivity. A predator needs to learn only once to leave a porcupine alone. Bobcats, great-horned owls, mountain lions, coyotes and wolves, when extremely hungry and unable to catch anything else, may give it a try anyway. The fisher, however, is a skilled porcupine killer. It uses its speed and agility to snake around a porcupine’s rear guard defense and viciously bite its face until it dies.

porcupine quill bracelet

At one time, however, especially when game was scarce, the porcupine was hunted for its meat and considered a delicacy. A practice that continues in Kenya today. Because they are slow, and can remain in the same tree for days at a time, they are about the only animal that can be killed simply with a large rock. Native people of the North Woods also wove elaborate dyed quillwork decorations into clothing, moccasins, belts, mats, necklaces, bracelets and bags. Because the work was so time-consuming and highly valued, quill embroderies were used as a medium of exchange before the coming of Europeans.

When not in trees or feeding, porcupines prefer the protection of a den, which can be found in rock crevices, caves, hollow logs, abandoned mines and even under houses and barns.

Porcupines are highly attracted to salt. They may chew on any tool handle that has salt left from human sweat. They have even been known to chew on outhouse toilet seats. Road rock salt is very tempting to them, and puddles of water from the snow-melt in the spring are especially luring and could account for their high road-kill mortality rate. They have even been seen gnawing on automobile tires that have been exposed to rock salt.

In Maine, porcupines join a short list of other animals that are open to hunting all year, including coyotes, woodchucks and red squirrels.

So, are porcupines a nuisance, or do they have a role in the grand scheme of things, ecologically?

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who is the only player in New York Yankees history to achieve over 3,000 hits in his career?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Brown-tail moth, immigrant from Europe, invasive to Maine coast

 

brown-tail moth

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

A couple of weeks ago, during a discussion with associates, the subject of the brown-tail moth came up. I figured it was just another of the mundane moths we see during the summer. However, that was not the case. This particular moth, Euproctis chrysorrhoea, is one that we probably could do without.

This moth, once native only to Europe, was accidentally brought to Massachusetts in 1897 on nursery stock, and soon spread to the rest of New England, Today, it is found only on Cape Cod and along the coast of Maine, where it is considered an invasive species.

The brown-tail moth is armed with defensive barbed hairs throughout its life span but especially during the caterpillar stage. These hairs break off, and for many people exposed, are susceptible to skin rashes, headaches, and even difficulty breathing. This caterpillar also has a huge host range of plants on which they feed.

The brown-tail moth caterpillar has tiny poisonous hairs that cause rashes similar to poison ivy on sensitive individuals. Rashes may develop when people come in direct contact with the caterpillar or indirectly from airborne hairs. The hairs become airborne by either being dislodged from living or dead caterpillars, or they come from cast skins when the caterpillar molts. Respiratory distress from inhaling the hairs can be serious.

Caterpillars are active from April to late June. Hairs remain toxic throughout the summer but get washed into the soil and are less of problem over time.

Brown-tail caterpillar

The moths, which are attracted to light and fly at night, and active in July and August, have a wingspan of about 1.5 inches. The wings and midsection are solid white on both the male and female. The abdomen has brown on it, and the brown coloration extends along most of the upper surface of the abdomen in the male, whereas the top of the abdomen is white on the female, but the tuft of brown hairs are much larger.

The factors underlying brown-tail moth population dynamics are little understood and have been only thoroughly investigated by few researchers.

According to the Coastal Pharmacy & Wellness staff, the brown-tail moth has been getting plenty of attention over the past few years. This is because the numbers have spiked to levels that haven’t been seen in quite some time. Last year was a banner year and this year’s population is predicted to be even higher.

Throughout much of its life cycle, the moth sheds its toxic hairs. Eggs are laid in August-September, when a female can lay up to 400 eggs. They build their winter nest in the fall and remain there from September to June. In June and July, the larvae spin cocoons in which to pupate. The cocoons are full of toxic hairs. The moth emerges in July and August, mate and lay eggs to begin a new cycle. During this period, more hairs are shed to cover the egg mass.

The brown-tail moth’s excessive desire to eat, and its habit of feeding on many different kinds of foods, together with its tendency to reach outbreak densities, makes this species a major pest of hardwood forests and may also attack fruit and ornamental trees.

According to the Coastal Pharmacy and Wellness staff, moth spray or lotion, to combat the rash, are available by prescription from your doctor. There is no antidote for the toxins, so treatment is focused on relieving symptoms and eliminating further exposure. “Since many reactions occur over weekends, seeing a doctor may not be immediately possible. In these cases, you may find relief by soaking in a warm bath and applying calamine lotion or antihistamine cream.”

Pursuant to Maine Statute Title 22§1444 the Chief Operating Officer of the Maine Center for Disease Control can declare an infestation of brown-tail moths as a public health nuisance. The declaration may be made on the COO’s initiative or upon petition by municipal officers.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

With his win in game five of the 2013 World Series, Jon Lester of the Boston Red Sox became only the second Red Sox left-handed pitcher to win three World Series games. Who was the first?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Pink flamingos, yes; but pink pigeons?

pink pigeon

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I came across something quite interesting last week while watching the Animal Planet network. It was a story about Pink Pigeons. Now, you have your general, run-of-the-mill rock doves, or common pigeons, that we all know all too well, marking up our landscape and just making a plain nuisance of themselves in parks, parking lots, and at backyard feeders. But these guys, the pink pigeons, were a little different.

Pink pigeons, not classified as a true pigeon, are endemic to Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean about 1,200 miles off the southeast coast of the African continent.

The pink pigeon was on the brink of extinction in 1991 when only 10 individual birds remained, but its numbers have increased recently due to the efforts of the Durrell Wildlife Conservations Trust since 1977. While the population, estimated at 450 birds in 2011, is still of concern, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) downlisted the species from critically endangered to endangered in 2000. A healthy captive population is also kept as “backup.”

Reclassified with recent DNA tests, the pink pigeon is more closely related to the Madagascar turtle dove, and has been suggested that it takes its place with a genus mostly contained as turtle doves.

An adult pink pigeon is about 14 – 15 inches in length from its beak to tail. They have pale pinkish-gray plumage on their head, shoulders and underside, along with pink feet. The beak is a drak pink color with a white tip.They have dark brown wings, and a broad, rust-colored tail. Their eyes are dark brown surrounded by an eye-ring of red skin.

A related subspecies, the Reunion pink pigeon, that resided on the neighboring Reunion Island, became extinct around 1700. As of 2016, there are five locations where wild populations of the pink pigeon can be found. Four of these locations belong to Black River Gorges National Park and the fifth to the Isle aux Aigrettes.

The species is not migratory.

They prefer upland evergreen forests, although they can also be found in coastal forests as long as the vegetation is native and not dominated by introduced species such as Chinese Guava or the privet. Destruction of such primal forests has been a major cause for its decline in numbers.

There are more males than females in the population due to a greater life expectancy of the male – about five years more. One reason for the difference is that producing eggs is extremely taxing on the female. Female birds are nearly constantly producing eggs – similar to the domesticated chickens. This can end up totaling to a large metabolic tax on the female’s survival.

Habitat degradation, introduced predators and wildlife disease are the major ongoing threats to the pink pigeon’s survival. Only two percent of the native forest remains on Mauritius. Common predators include the crab-eating macaque, the small Asian mongoose, rats and feral cats. Invasive plants such as the Chinese guava and privet dominate native forest plants, preventing their growth.

Feeding stations that provide supplementary feed may accelerate the spread of disease between individuals, since they congregatge at greater than normal numbers at stations. An ongoing concern faced by the pink pigeons, as by many other endangered species that exist in small remnant populations, is inbreeding depression.

Several foundations and organizations have contributed to conservation efforts. In addition to direct conservation efforts such as captive breeding, genetic research, and supplementary feeding efforts, more general research on the species may aid in the formation of more applicable conservation actions.

It’s an interesting species of bird that exists in only a small area of the world, far away from central Maine. But it’s still interesting to learn about this wildlife that I had not heard of a week ago.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which MLB pitcher owns the distinction of having won the most games, and having lost the most games during his career?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Those pesky, uninvited, intruding house guests

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I’m not talking about Martha Stewart etiquette here. I’m talking about house mice that come in uninvited and overstay their welcome. I dealt with mice at camp last summer when I trapped 13 during the season, and I am in a constant battle to keep them out.

Now, I’m dealing with them in my house. My wife and I have lived in our present location in Waterville for 42 years, and never encountered a mouse – until this past weekend.

While rearranging the cellar way where I keep a vegetable bin, a compost bucket and a sundry of cleaning materials, I noticed a bag of grass seed that had been invaded, with the ever-present mouse droppings everywhere. I managed to trap one on each of Saturday and Sunday. The trap was empty Monday morning. Maybe that was it. We’ll see.

They could be either a house mouse, field mouse or meadow vole.

A small mammal, although a wild animal, the meadow vole, Microtus pennsylvanicus, sometimes called a field mouse, are active year round.

A lot of people confuse the field mouse with house mice. They are a little different. A house mouse in uniformly brown-gray, right down to the tail. They typically have small hands and feet with big eyes and ears. And if you have a house mouse, you will know it because of its strong smell.

The field mouse has sandy brown fur and a white to gray belly. A cautious mouse which always sniffs anything unfamiliar before approaching, this mouse does not have a very strong smell. Which, obviously, is why I didn’t know we had mice in the house. There was no odor. The mice I have been catching also have white bellies.

The meadow vole has the widest distribution of any North American species. It ranges from Labrador west to Alaska and south from Labrador and New Brunswick to South Carolina all the way west to Wyoming. They are also found in Washington, Idaho and Utah.

Meadow voles have to eat frequently, and their active periods are associated with food digestion. They have no clear 24-hour rhythm in many areas.

Left, house mouse; center, field mouse; right, meadow vole.

Contrary to what you see in the cartoons, mice do not like cheese. They actually like to eat fruits, seeds and grains. They are omnivorous, which means they eat both plants and meat. The common house mouse will eat just about anything it can find. In fact, if food is scarce, they will eat each other. (I bait my traps with peanut butter – works every time!) They have voracious appetites, and usually build their nests near places that have readily accessible food sources.

Male mice are usually ready to mate after six to eight weeks. One captive female produced 17 litters in one year for a total of 83 young. One of her young produced 13 litters (totaling 78 young) before she was a year old.

But, I’m not completely convinced we have meadow voles. They could be house mice or field mice. They seem to have those characteristics. I thought they might be house mice because they are more adaptable to humans than meadow voles. But, again, we didn’t get the strong odor from a house mouse, and the mice I’m catching have a white belly, which the field mouse has, and not the house mouse. The meadow vole doesn’t usually enter homes, but rather prefers dense, gassy areas, and winters under the snow near some natural formation such as a rock or log.

The house mouse, Mus musculus, originally came from Asia, colonizing in new continents with the movement of people. Either of the three species can transmit diseases, though not on the same scale as rats.

The house mouse lives more comfortably with humans, while field mice, Apodemus sylvaticus, prefer to live underground, although they will, from time to time, enter buildings.

The house mouse and field mouse are nocturnal and are active only at night, while meadow voles have no time schedule. My little intruders seem to be active only after dark.

They also have strange names. Females are does, males are bucks and babies are called pinkies. In the wild, the life span of mice is usually one to two-and-a-half years.

There is, pretty much, an argument that we could have any of the three species. Whichever one we have, they are not welcome.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

This pitcher, who played for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, is the only Canadian-born player in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Stink bug or pumpkin (squash) bug?

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

A reader called the office last week to inquire about a bug that resembles a ladybug, but is green in color. She was wondering if it was a pumpkin bug. Well, it very well could be.

The pumpkin bug, or squash bug, are also called stink bugs, but are not the traditional stink bug. Although some pumpkin bugs are called stink bugs, not all stink bugs are pumpkin bugs. If you ever spot a sizable green stink bug, there’s a good chance that it’s a pumpkin bug. They are similar in appearance to stink bugs because they both have a foul odor when squashed. However, stink bugs are wider and rounder.

squash bug

The squash bug, Anasa tristis, is common throughout the United States. It primarily attacks squash and pumpkins but can also attack other cucurbits, such as cucumbers.

They are the bane of a gardener. They are difficult to kill and can cause a lot of havoc.

The adult bugs are somewhat flat, large insects, measuring 5/8 inch long and 1/3 inch wide. They are usually dark gray to dark brown. The edges of the abdomens protrude beyond their wings and typically have alternating orangish and brown stripes. They are able to fly, however they often simply walk around on plants.

These bugs overwinter as adults in sheltered places, such as under plant debris, around buildings, or under rocks. When adults emerge in the spring, they fly to growing cucurbit plants to feed and mate. Females lay eggs individually in small clusters of about 20 commonly on the undersides of the leaves, especially between the veins where they form a V. The females usually begin to appear in gardens in early June, and continue to lay eggs through mid-summer.

These bugs have piercing-sucking mouth-parts they use to suck the sap out of leaves. This process produces yellow spots that eventually turn brown, and disrupts the flow of water and nutrients, which can cause wilting. Young plants are more susceptible to extensive damage. Larger, more vigorous plants are more tolerant of feeding damage, although they can also be injured or killed if they are severely attacked.

These bugs inject a toxin into the plant and suck the sap right out of it with their sharp mouthparts. This causes yellow spots that eventually turn brown. The leaves will wilt because the damage prevents the flow of nutrients to the leaves, and then they will dry up and turn black.

The most important times to control squash bugs are when the plants are young seedlings and when they are flowering. Early detection is important because adult squash bugs are difficult to kill.

Remove or knock off and kill nymphs and adults by dropping them into a bucket of soapy water. This can be challenging because the bugs hide under leaves and move quickly when disturbed.

Crush the eggs that are attached to the undersides and stems of leaves.

Trap the bugs by laying out boards or pieces of newspaper. The bugs will congregate under the boards at night, and then can be collected and destroyed in the morning.

Check your plants daily. If there are no more than a few vines infected, keep collecting and destroying the bugs and crushing the egg clusters that you find.

Insecticides are not generally needed to control these bugs. They can be used if cucurbits are found wilting early in the season. Carbaryl/Sevin is most effective if applied when eggs are hatching. Consult your local garden center for controls that are locally approved. When using an insecticide, make sure to read the instructions well.

Planting time is approaching. Make sure your garden is free of these little pests. There is no worse feeling than seeing your plants being destroyed and you have no idea what is causing it. Check under the leaves.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

In addition to pitching a one-hitter in game two of the 1967 World Series, who became the first Red Sox pitcher to win the AL Cy Young Award in 1967?

Answer can be found here.

SPORTS & OUTDOORS: Efforts needed to save our moose from ticks

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 73 percent of hunters harvested a moose during the last season. This was done despite warm spells in both September and October.

There were 2,080 permits issued, and 1,518 hunters were successful. That would lead you to believe that moose are plentiful.

Relatively speaking, this may be true. However, research by the department seems to indicate a drastic decline in our moose population. Once estimated at 90,000 moose, the population today could be as low as 50,000. With a substantial decline in the moose population also came the 50 percent reduction in moose permits issued last fall.

According to figures from the MDIFW, that is significant. The 73 percent success rate is consistent with the 71 percent success rate for moose hunters over the past five years. This is compared to turkey hunters who are generally about 30 percent, bear hunters are successful 25 percent of the time, while deer hunters in Maine are successful about 15-20 percent of the time.

However, in an interview with the Bangor Daily News, Maine moose biologist Lee Kantar stated that the reduction in moose permits has a negative impact on guides, sporting camps and rural Maine towns.

Kantar conducted a survey where 83 moose were captured and collared in early January in northern and western Maine.

“The thing that’s the challenge is that there’s no perfect data on how many moose are in any of those areas,” Kantar told reporter John Holyoke. What is causing this reduction in moose numbers? Kantar summed it up in one word: ticks!

In order to attempt to assess the population, DIF&W utilizes aerial flights to study the composition of the moose herd. Biologists also examine teeth from the moose to determine the animal’s age, measure antler spread, and monitor the number of ticks a moose carries, and examine cow ovaries in late fall to determine reproductive rate.

“Ultimately, we want to know about survival rates about cows and calves because they’re so crucial to our moose population, and whether we have growth or decline in stability,” Kantar told Holyoke. “We want to be able to predict at least the near future so we can satisfy what the public wants.”

In a press release from the MDIF&W, Kantar noted, “High success rates for moose hunters in northern Maine are consistent with what we are seeing with our moose survival study. Adult survival rates are consistently high in our study areas, and calf survival rates are higher in our northern Maine study area compared to our western Maine study area.”

Weather impacted many hunters, particularly in the first week of the season. Moose tend to travel less and spend more time in cover when it’s hot. It was also noted that hunter effort also declines during these periods.

However, despite all the efforts in studying moose, including analyzing blood, hair and fecal samples, and conducting a tick count, there still hasn’t been a way to prevent ticks from killing the moose.

Ticks continue to be a major nuisance in our surroundings. Maybe the answer lies in letting Mother Nature do it on her own, because sometimes human interference does nothing but make things worse.

In my article last week, I explained how it has been found that the presence of opossum could dramatically impact the tick population. But do the opossum have a place in our environment, and would their presence be detrimental to other animals in their respective regions?

The legislature’s IF&W committee has to come up with answers. It would behoove them to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

In 2010, what Red Sox rookie became the only player in AL history to hit a grand slam home run on the first pitch of the first at-bat of his career?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: What’s for suppah, Granny? ‘Possum stew and crawdad pie

Opossum, the tick vacuum.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

“What’s for suppah, Granny,” is the question that comes from members of the Clampett family on the 1960s TV series, The Beverly Hillbillies.

“‘possum stew and crawdad pie,”replies Granny.

Not exactly appetizing if you ask me.

So, let’s get this question out of the way, right now.

First crawdads, or crayfish. They are delicious, but that’s a story for another time.

Opossums, on the other hand, taste pretty bad. They are edible, but are extremely greasy. They would probably be consumed only in a survival situation. They are high in protein, but must be well cooked. One person described it as “tasting like it had been cooked in a burning, plastic garbage bag.”

Why all this about opossums? Well, I saw one last week on my way to work, laying dead by the side of the road. I remember, a few years back, reporting about an opossum sighting in Winslow. But have heard very little since then.

Are they common in Maine? They are usually associated with the deep southern U.S.

Opossums are North America’s only native marsupial. They resemble a cross between a house cat and a giant rat. They are common in Maine, but mostly in the southern part of the state. They have migrated into Maine over the last 50 years, probably because of lack of habitat in their native areas.

At first, people were not all that thrilled about this creature supplanting itself in our environs. The animal has always been perceived as dirty and a possible threat to carrying rabies. All these theories are false.

Opossums may be your best defense against Lyme disease.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that opossums, who are diligent self-cleaners with a tough immune system, are about eight times less likely to be carrying rabies than a feral dog. As they are constantly cleaning themselves, they can destroy up to 95 percent of all deer ticks that try to feed of them. Rick Ostfeld, author of a book on Lyme disease, and a senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, best described opossums as “basically walking tick vacuums.”

Many ticks try to feed on opossums, but few of them survive. Opossums scurry about the forest floor sucking up ticks at a voracious rate. If you want to rid yourself of ticks from the backyard, it would be better if you had some opossums hanging around. You can go online and find instructions on how to build an opossum house, similar to birdhouses.

With the escalation of tick populations in Maine, opossums are man’s best friend. Opossums consider ticks a tasty snack, and an easy one at that. According to a study conducted by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a single opossum can wipe out between 5,500 and 6,000 ticks in a week.

John Smith, who founded the Jamestown colony in 1607, first recorded the name “opossum,” from the Powhatan language (opassom). Smith described the opossum: “hath a head of a swine…tail like a rat…of the bigness of a cat.” The Powhatan word is derived from a Proto-Algonquain word meaning “white dog or dog-like beast.” William Strachey, the first secretary of Jamestown, described the animal this way: “beast in bigness of a pig and in taste alike.”

The opossum, Didelphis virginiana, is a marsupial endemic to the Americas. They originated in South America and entered North America in the Great American Interchange following the connection of the two continents. Their flexible diet, and reproductive habits make them successful colonizers and survivors in diverse locations and conditions.

Opossums are usually solitary and nomadic, staying in one area as long as food and water are easily available. And, of course, we all know about the term “playing ‘possum,” the act of mimicking the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal. What I didn’t know is that the response is involuntary, rather than a conscious act. The stiff, curled form can be prodded, turned over, and even carried away without a reaction from the animal. They will typically regain consciousness after a period of a few minutes or up to four hours.

Although not a handsome fella by most standards, the opossum has a very important place in our ecosystem, in regards to controling the dreaded tick. I wonder if I could convince a couple of them to hang around camp during the summer.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

In 2004, which Red Sox pitcher was the winning pitcher in the clinching games of the ALDS, ALCS, and the World Series?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Great Blue Herons struggle on coast, hold their own inland

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

We see them everywhere on our lakes. They are long, lean and stare at you from the shoreline or from tree tops. The Great Blue Heron.

The great blue heron, Ardea herodias, is found throughout most of North America, as far north as Alaska and the southern Canadian provinces in the summer months. In winter, the range extends south through Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean to South America. Birds east of the Rocky Mountains in the northern part of their range are migratory and winter in the coastal areas of the southern United States, Central America or northern South America. From the southern United States southwards, and on the lower Pacific coast, they are year-round residents. However, their hardiness is such that individuals often remain through cold northern winters, as well, so long as fish-bearing waters remain unfrozen (which may be the case only in flowing water such as streams, creeks, and rivers).

great blue heron

The great blue heron can adapt to almost any wetland habitat in its range. It may be found in numbers in fresh and saltwater marshes, mangrove swamps, flooded meadows, lake edges, or shorelines. It is quite adaptable and may be seen in heavily developed areas as long as they hold bodies of fish-bearing water.

Great blue herons rarely venture far from bodies of water, but are occasionally seen flying over upland areas. They usually nest in trees or bushes near water’s edge, often on islands (which minimizes the potential for predation) or partially isolated spots.

Great blue herons are widespread throughout Maine; however, a noticeable decline in their coastal nesting population has occurred since the 1980s. By enlisting volunteers, the Heron Observation Network of Maine, is able to cover what is probably three times more sites than the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife could cover should they do it alone.

In total, staff, contractors, and volunteers surveyed 139 colonies in 2017. With over 184 ground visits, 61 volunteers monitored nesting activity at 92 colonies. Staff and contractors monitored an additional 47 colonies through aerial surveys and ground visits.

Over 66 percent of colonies surveyed in 2017 were covered by volunteers. Coastal observations show a decline in coastal colonies with a slight increase showing for inland groups.

All the effort by volunteers, staff and contractors revealed similar results as in 2016. In 2017, they observed 60 active colonies with 629 nesting pairs. Since not all known colonies were surveyed, they typically assume that the latest survey data for those still stand, providing a more probable total of 838 nesting pairs among 81 active colonies statewide.

The number of nesting pairs on coastal islands is at its lowest level since the 1980s. With only 221 nesting pairs among seven islands, the coastal population is now down 82 percent since 1983. Since 2013, the 5-year average has been decreasing 8-16 percent each year. The inland population looks relatively stable, with small ups and downs since they began close monitoring in 2009. The average number of inland nesting pairs over the past nine years is 683. Since 2013, the 5-year average has been increasing by 1-2 percent each year.

However, the inland increases don’t make up for the losses on the coast, though there may be a lag time between the initiation of new colonies and when they become discovered. Volunteers discovered eight new colonies in 2017. Two of those colonies are within six miles of the large colony on Wreck Island (Muscongus Bay) that was lost in 2016. While these two colonies only contain 40 nesting pairs combined, they could represent some of the pairs from Wreck Island. Now, volunteers would like to find the other 60-80 pairs who abandoned that colony!

Coastal islands may no longer be preferred habitat for nesting great blue herons in Maine; however, the reasons for this change are not entirely clear. Disturbance, predators, and change in prey abundance could all be part of the equation. The Heron Observation Network of Maine will continue its monitoring efforts that, hopefully, will shed more light on this disturbing pattern.

This spring will mark the tenth anniversary of the Heron Observation Network of Maine. While they have gained invaluable information regarding the abundance and distribution of nesting great blue herons throughout the state of Maine, their work is not yet done. In 2020, they hope to repeat the Dual-Frame Aerial Survey conducted in 2015 to arrive at an updated population estimate, which in turn will give them trend information. In order for that survey to be a success, they will need to continue to collect data on as many colonies as possible between now and then. Thus, volunteers are still essential!

Reports of colonies are also essential. As colonies shift around the landscape, they need help discovering the new locations. If you know of a great blue heron colony, please don’t hesitate to report it to MDIFW. There is no harm in reporting a colony they already know about. In addition, they need more volunteers to help cover as many colonies as possible. Contact MDIFW if you are interested in joining the Heron Observation Network and monitoring a colony.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Name the three Boston Red Sox leftfielders who are enshrined in MLB’s Hall of Fame.

Answer here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Pesticides having a detrimental affect on bumble bee population

Bumble bee

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Recently I read an article about the state of bumble bees and honey bees. It seems a common class of pesticide, neonicotinoids, is causing problems for honey bees and bumble bees, by attacking their central nervous systems, causing a reduction in weight and the number of queens in bumble bee hives. It also causes them to become disoriented, and fail to return to their hives.

Neonicotinoids are a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine. As of 2013 neonicotinoids have been used in the U.S. on about 95 percent of corn and canola crops, the majority of cotton, sorghum, and sugar beets and about half of all soybeans. They have been used on the vast majority of fruit and vegetables, including apples, cherries, peaches, oranges, berries, leafy greens, tomatoes, and potatoes, to cereal grains, rice, nuts, and wine grapes. Imidacloprid is possibly the most widely used insecticide, both within the neonicotinoids and in the worldwide market.

For more than a decade, pollinators of all types have been in decline, mostly because of loss of habitat, inadequate food sources, diseases caused by parasites and viruses, and bee management practices, along with perhaps some pesticides.

In a British study, researchers dosed bees with the pesticide and moved their hives out to a field. After six weeks, they found the pesticide-treated hives to be 10 percent lighter than those that weren’t treated; and more important, the hives that had pesticides lost about 85 percent of their queens.

Even though lower doses were used with bumble bees, it seems that bumble bees are more sensitive to the pesticide and that issue is worthy of more study.

Honey bee

Honey bees, which aren’t native to America, are managed by professional beekeepers, carted from farm to orchard, and raised to produce honey. Bumble bees, native to this country, are wild pollinators.

Bumble bees are typically found in higher latitudes and high altitudes, through exception exist. They are also found in cold climates where other bees might not be found because bumble bees can regulate their body temperature.

Bumble bees are social insects that feed on nectar and gather pollen to feed their young. Bees are also needed to pollinate fruit, vegetables and nuts. Without them, experts say our diets would be very bland.

Bumble bees generally visit flowers exhibiting the bee pollination syndrome. They tend to visit the same patches of flowers every day, as long as they continue to find nectar and pollen. Pollen is removed from flowers deliberately or incidentally by bumblebees. Once a bumblebee has visited a flower, it leaves a scent mark on the flower. This scent mark deters visitation of the flowers by other bumblebees until the scent degrades.

Once they have collected nectar and pollen, bumble bees return to the nest and deposit the harvested nectar and pollen into brood cells, or into wax cells for storage. Unlike honey bees, bumble bees only store a few days’ worth of food, and so they are much more vulnerable to food shortages.

Queen and worker bumblebees can sting. The bumble bee stinger has no barbs and is capable of multiple stings. They are not normally aggressive, but will sting in defense of their nest or if harmed. They will attack host colony members, but usually ignore other animals and humans unless disturbed.

Multiple species of bees are either seing a decline or disappearing entirely from the European landscape, along with some native to America, some of them may even be extinct.

According to 20th century folklore, the laws of aerodynamics prove that bumble bees should be incapable of flight, as it doesn’t have the capacity to achieve flight with the degree of wing loading necessary. In 1934, French entomologist Antoine Magnan included the following passage in the introduction to his book, Le Vols des Insectes: “First prompted by what is done in aviation, I applied the laws of air resistance to insects, and I arrived … at this conclusion that their flight is impossible.” Apparently, the bumblebee’s wing function is that the wings work similarly to helicopter blades. Bees beat their wings approximately 200 times a second. Their thorax muscles do not expand and contract on each nerve firing but rather vibrate like a plucked rubber band.

So, environmental activists and some beekeepers are convinced the pesticide is a problem. Entomologists have said without bees, “we’d be a scurvy-ridden society.”

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Chris Sale is scheduled to be the opening day pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in 2018. Who was the last Red Sox lefthanded pitcher to start two consecutive opening days?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Unity College students initiate a turtle mark-recapture study; radio-telemetry and habitat mapping project

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

While watching a documentary about turtles on British Broadcasting Company/America (BBCAm) over the weekend, they had several episodes about turtles on the show Blue Planet. It got me to thinking about turtles in our area, and the plight they encounter. I have written on turtles before, but I felt it was time to do it again.

Recently, I received a story from Unity College on a program the students conducted over the summer, and I thought I would share it with you.

Here is the article:

wood turtle

As the antenna slowly swept a semicircle into the crisp fall air above his head, senior Greg Leclair listened closely to the steady beep of the receiver at his chest for any change in intensity. Up to his hips in leaf-strewn stream water, sporting camouflage waders and a Unity College baseball cap, if it weren’t for the radio-telemetry gear Greg could have easily been mistaken for a fisherman on a morning expedition. But his quarry was of a much craftier kind.

Suddenly, he paused, eyes squinting against the increasing blaze of a rising sun, and gestured upstream. “We passed him. He’s that way,” he called out, catching the attention of two other student volunteers combing nearby banks for any sign of their clever target. Somehow they’d missed him — but that was no surprise. He could be anywhere: cozy under three feet of water or tucked happily between the roots of a tree. He might even be sunning himself beneath a thin layer of sand on a nearby beach, virtually invisible to all but the carefullest passerby.

But 20 minutes later, the jig was up. Going on a hunch, Greg wandered up an embankment and into the woods nearby, antenna in hand, to search. The transmitter’s telling beeps assured that Gotham, one of ten radio-tagged turtles currently wandering the woods and waters surrounding Unity, Maine, promptly got pulled out of the shady protection of an overgrown raspberry bush. Since spring 2015, Greg and other Unity College students have followed the telling beep of their telemetry gear and waded through deep waters to locate turtles.

In partnership with Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Associate Professor Matt Chatfield initiated a mark-recapture study and a radio-telemetry and habitat mapping project on a nearby Wood Turtle population. At least once a week in fall and spring, students pull on their waders and search for turtles, both tagged and untagged, to collect data on. “This project and this college are a match made in heaven. We’re all about sustainability science, conservation and protection of the environment here, and this project really speaks to that,” Dr. Chatfield said. “This is a real opportunity to collect information that can be used range-wide to help conserve this turtle in its wild habitat, and also offers integrative experience that is essential in training the next generation of wildlife biologists and environmental problem-solvers. So far it’s been very rewarding — it’s always fulfilling as a professor to watch your students grow.”

As a group, turtles are the most imperiled vertebrates on earth. More than 80 percent of species are already extinct or threatened with extinction. The Wood Turtle is especially at risk, and is experiencing widespread decline throughout much of its range. The species is currently listed as a Species of Special Concern in Maine, and as a Priority 1 Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Maine’s Wildlife Action Plan. But data on Wood Turtles remains sparse, making Unity College’s study a much-needed attempt to fill in some of the gaps. The project will hopefully help scientists understand how Wood Turtle habitat use and movement patterns may be influenced by things like agriculture, road construction, and development. “This project, through close collaboration between students, faculty and MDIFW biologists, helps fulfill the mission of the college, while simultaneously empowering students through invaluable experiences on a local, yet globally-relevant conservation project,” Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury said. “Participation in the project through internships, work study, and volunteering through the campus herpetology club, helps students transition smoothly into graduate programs and further their career goals as biologists or conservation practitioners.” Each turtle found is tracked with a number, using the same system as the state of Maine because ultimately all of the gathered data goes on to Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Besides their numbers, most turtles are also given informal names. “Shredder” came about after one turtle kicked so much during his transmitter glueing that he shredded the latex gloves of his handler. Another turtle unexpectedly turned up a solid half mile from his usual haunts one day and gained the name “Roman” for his efforts. “Gotham” got his name for his piercing yellow eyes and dark shell, bringing to mind an image of “the dark knight” for some students.

Dr. Chatfield has watched many of his undergraduates become increasingly interested in the project over three years of study, seeing its influence on their career paths, skillsets and sense of responsibility. He said he leans on Greg in particular in a way generally reserved in academia for graduate students.

DAYTONA 500: YAWN!

Was it just me or was this year’s Daytona 500, except for the final five laps, the most boring of all. I have never watched a Daytona 500 that had as many commercials as this one. It was like commercials every five laps, that took up about six or seven laps of the race. Here was how I tracked it. With 32 laps left, they went to commercial and returned with 25 laps left. Commercials again at lap 21, returned at 17, broke again at 14 laps, returning with 11 laps to go. And during the only green flag pit stops – very exciting to me – they were in commercials. I think I saw more commercials than the actual race.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

When was the last time the U.S four-man bobsled team won a gold medal?

Answer on page 11.