June 23, 2013

Boaters threatening sandhill cranes

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

By MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING Morning Sentinel

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click image to enlarge

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

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.

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