SMITHFIELD – Speeding boaters and Jet Skiers along the Serpentine waterway may be threatening the sandhill crane, a species that recently returned to Maine after being pushed to the brink of extinction.

Maine’s birders get excited when they see a sandhill crane, a 4-foot-tall wading bird with a shaggy, ostrich-like body and bright red forehead topping white cheeks. The national population, centered in the Midwest, has grown from about 1,000 birds in the 1930s to more than 600,000 today.

There are as few as a dozen nesting sites in Maine.

Observers have seen at least eight cranes living along the Serpentine, a three-mile waterway that cuts across a peat bog and connects East Pond and North Pond.

When boaters are within 200 feet of any shore, which describes the entire length of the narrow Serpentine, they are supposed to maintain headway speed under state law. That means they must go the slowest speed at which it is possible to maintain control of the boat.

That law is being routinely and blatantly disregarded to the detriment of the sandhill crane, local waterfront property owners and the ecological health of the Serpentine itself, according to Rob Jones, president of the East Pond Association.

“They’ve got these boats capable of tremendous speed and they use it,” Jones said.

The Serpentine is a place to see and appreciate all sorts of wildlife in a kayak or canoe, slipping along the waterway at dawn or dusk.

“It’s like going into your own private jungle right here in central Maine,” said Christine Keller, an association member who has been exploring the Serpentine’s charms for years.

Keller and other nature enthusiasts on the Serpentine have seen all sorts of birds, including loons, great blue herons, snowy egrets, eagles, ospreys, hawks, ducks and pipers.

Keller has seen deer picking their way along the edge of the peat bog, where it shares habitat with beavers, otters, muskrats, minks and martens.

The Serpentine is one of the few places Mainers might hear the crane’s distinctive call, described in birding books as a rattling “kar-r-r-r-o-o-o” that gets loudest during the mating season.

Keller described it as a weird squawk that she imagined a prehistoric pterodactyl would have made.

Over the years, she has enjoyed increasing sightings of the bird, which builds nests of vegetation rising out of the water and feeds on everything from plants to bugs to small mammals and frogs.

“From a distance you might think it was a great blue heron,” she said. “It almost looks like an emu or an ostrich, only smaller.”

In 2006, there were three sandhill cranes along the Serpentine, but last fall, while boating with friends, she saw eight in one night.

She hasn’t yet seen any this year, but she has heard them, she said.

BOATERS CLASH WITH CRANES

But the paradise enjoyed by the sandhill cranes and people like Keller is frequently disrupted by speeding boaters.

When Jones first came to the area and began enjoying Maine’s waterways 23 years ago, no one sped through the Serpentine.

“When we first moved there, you had to go slow because you had to weave your way through the lily pads,” Jones said.

Over the years, he said, problem boaters have changed the physical landscape of the waterway in a way that reinforces their own bad behavior. Rather than navigate around the vegetation, they have plowed right through it, which has over time killed the plants and created a straighter path of clear water. The straight path encourages others to speed, accelerating the trend.

“This seems to be a fairly universal behavior now,” he said. “Just ignoring, not only the common sense, but also the boating regulations.”

Traffic has increased on the Serpentine, a convenient throughway between the two lakes and home to an ice cream shop at the North Pond end, a popular destination.

Speeding boaters sometimes generate large waves that can send paddlers into a panic — or into the water.

Keller said she once saw speeding Jet Skiers traveling at an estimated 45 to 50 mph nearly capsize a fisherman.

Jones said the problem, which is exacerbated by water-based events such as fishing tournaments, extends beyond the Serpentine and applies to all of Maine’s waterways.

Jones and Keller both said they frequently use hand gestures to try to get people to slow down, with mixed results.

“Some do — particularly if you’re in a kayak and start waving your hands frantically, they will sometimes back off,” Jones said.

Others, he said, respond with nothing more than their own hand gestures and keep on speeding.

RARE BIRDS MADE RARER

While sightings have been reported as far north as Ashland in Aroostook County, and as far south as Kittery in York County, the best place in Maine to get a glimpse of a sandhill crane is in Smithfield.

After a decade of unconfirmed sightings, a researcher working in Kennebec County finally documented a nesting pair for the first time in 2000.

While sandhill cranes are a common sight in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, they remain a rare treat for Northeast bird watchers.

“People don’t expect to see them in Maine,” said Mike Windsor, staff naturalist at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm in Falmouth, who led a guided tour to Smithfield last summer to give people a chance to see the cranes.

When a boat speeds through the Serpentine, it creates a variety of problems for the birds, according to Derek Lovitch, a wilderness guide and co-owner of Freeport Wild Bird Supply.

Lovitch, who has taken many people to crane nesting spots since they began appearing in Maine, said the appeal of the bird is obvious.

“They’re charismatic megafauna,” Lovitch said, which means “they’re big and pretty.”

Sandhill cranes, like loons, tend to build their nests in marshes close to the water, away from potential predators that are more comfortable on dry land.

The cranes, which live for 20 years and mate for life, build nests equipped to withstand normal wind waves.

The large waves from the wake of a speeding boat or Jet Ski often douse a nest with water, a particular problem in June and July, when there are eggs or chicks in it. The platforms are so well-constructed that they can sometimes hold water.

“The eggs that have to stay 100 degrees are now surrounded by 55-degree water,” Lovitch said. “If the eggs get wet and cold, they are dead.”

During the first two weeks or so of their lives, chicks that get drenched or washed right out of the nest into the water can die of hypothermia.

Lovitch said any threat to the sandhill crane must be taken seriously because of their scarcity.

“If one mallard nest gets destroyed by a boat, in the big picture it doesn’t mean very much,” he said. “If one sandhill crane nest or loon nest gets destroyed, it means a lot.”

As damaging as that scenario is, the bigger threat comes from the noise generated by a speeding boat, which to a crane is indistinguishable from an approaching predator, Lovitch said.

The noise disturbs not only cranes and loons, but other feathered residents of the marsh, which can include marsh wrens, Virginia rails and sora rails, according to Belgrade birder Don Mairs.

When dozens of boats go through the Serpentine on a summer weekend day, each one disrupts the birds’ normal activities. More time spent responding to threats by flying away means less time feeding and sheltering themselves and their young, which leads in turn to higher mortality rates.

Over time, the speeding boats literally frighten the birds to death.

OTHER EFFECTS

The sandhill cranes aren’t the only ones bothered by speeding boats, equipped with propellors that can injure wildlife such as turtles, or chop up and spread invasive plant species, including milfoil.

The waves have a series of other effects on the ecosystem, none of them good.

One important measure of lake health is its level of clarity, measured by submerging a disk at the end of a pole into the water until it can’t be seen any more. Cloudier water means a less healthy lake, according to Maggie Shannon, president of the Maine Congress of Lake Associations, which includes the East Pond Association as a member.

The relationship between water clarity and property values is difficult to measure, but it is significant, Shannon said.

Shannon points to a 1998 University of Maine study which found that a 1-meter decrease in clarity is equivalent to a loss of $7,629 in value for each waterfront property, while other estimates have put the property loss value at as much as 10 percent per meter of decreased clarity.

When a boater travels at high speed in shallow waters, sediment is disturbed from the bottom, releasing algae-feeding nutrients such as phosphorus into the water, reducing water clarity and leading to algal blooms.

The waves also lap at the shore, speeding erosion that can eat away at the banks and further cloud the water.

The silt stirred up by the passing motorboats also makes things unpleasant for the human inhabitants of the Serpentine’s waterfront.

“There are some people along the Serpentine that get their house water for showering and dishwater from the Serpentine, and boats churning up a lot of the bottom, that clogs up their intakes,” Jones said.

SIGNS OF CHANGE

With more boat motorists flouting the law, the East Pond Association has been working to bring awareness to the issue.

Since 2006, Keller said, she has been trying to build support for buoys and signs that would remind boaters to travel at headway speed and not to leave a wake.

Jones said the association spent years lobbying the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to help control boat traffic.

Part of the issue was convincing the state that there was enough of a problem to spend resources to combat it, and so Keller made numerous reports on behalf of herself and other eyewitnesses to the speeding.

Thanks to their efforts, three buoys were approved in December and deployed earlier this month by association volunteers.

The association is also looking for the optimal spot for a large sign that reads “Headway Speed/No Wake.”

Jones said there’s no way to quantify the impact of the buoys, but he’s heard some discouraging anecdotes.

“Some people are just breezing right past the buoys,” he said.

Association members are also encouraging people to report speeding boaters to police and game wardens, in the hope that a special patrol of game wardens would be justified.

Keller said people often just fail to make the connection between piloting their boat quickly and environmental degradation, and she hopes to encourage a mindset of individual stewardship.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

mhhetling@centralmaine.com