June 23, 2013

Boaters threatening sandhill cranes

The state law regarding headway speed is being routinely disregarded along the Serpentine.


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.

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Christine Keller paddles through a section of the Serpentine waterway, a three-mile waterway that cuts across a peat bog as it connects East Pond and North Pond and is home to a sandhill crane. Speeding boaters and Jet Skiers along the Serpentine waterway may be unwittingly threatening a comeback by the sandhill crane, a species that recently returned to Maine after being pushed to the brink of extinction.

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

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.


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."

(Continued on page 2)

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