A mild winter and early spring have all kinds of critters on the move a little early this year.

Lobster season is expected to come weeks earlier than usual as the crustaceans migrate back toward shore, something sure to please early summer tourists. On the other hand, tick season is starting early, too, and the state is already seeing evidence of what is expected to be a big year for the spread of Lyme disease.

Lots of other Maine wild things also are well ahead of their typical spring schedules, from piping plovers returning to nest on sandy beaches to spring peepers that are filling wetlands with their music weeks ahead of schedule. Some animals have moved into spring mode so early that the subfreezing temperatures expected Sunday and Monday could take a toll on some species.

The unusually mild winter – the warmest on record for the U.S. and second warmest on record for Portland – has left seawater temperatures above normal, too.

That means lobsters are expected to move in from deeper waters offshore where they spend the winter and crawl back to shallower inland waters, where most lobstermen set their traps.

Scientists are predicting the peak lobster catching season to start as early as June 12, well ahead of the usual start in July. And that could translate into lower lobster prices all summer long.

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Other migratory species appear to be returning a little earlier, too.

The first piping plovers were spotted at beaches in Ogunquit and Kennebunkport on March 13, earlier than in past years, according to Facebook posts by the Scarborough Piping Plover Monitoring Community.

The federally protected shorebirds fly north to Maine each spring to set up nests in the dry sand, prompting wildlife advocates to set up safety perimeters and enforce dog leash laws so that the birds can safely lay eggs in the sand and protect their chicks.

Doug Hitchcox, staff naturalist for Maine Audubon, said the piping plovers that have arrived are only a little early, if at all. But unlike in past years, when it has taken time for them to warm up, “they’re jumping right into the breeding behavior.”

SPRING SCRAPING CAN WAIT

The male birds have been spotted “scraping,” meaning they kick back their legs to scrape the surface of the sand, which attracts females to the area. That means the first nest “could pop up any day now,” Hitchcox said. The earliest nest on record was seen on April 18.

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Once birds start the breeding process, they don’t stop, Hitchcox said. But he believes the colder weather forecast for this weekend could keep some of them from getting going.

“I think that will be a sign to the birds to chill out,” he said.

Frogs, toads and salamanders also sped up their annual migrations from the woodland where they spend winters back in vernal pools where they gather to mate in the spring – and create the familiar sound known as “spring peepers.”

This year, the amphibians have already had their “big night” – the term for warm, rainy nights in the spring when they come out in droves in search of vernal pools to breed in. That usually doesn’t happen until April, and a return to freezing temperatures this weekend “would be devastating,” said Hitchcox.

Someone brought a salamander found roaming around during January into Maine Aubudon, where they’ve kept it for the past couple of months. It probably would have died once the January warm spell was over – and it’s almost definitely not the only one that emerged too early, Hitchcox said.

He said groundhogs also have been spotted coming out of hibernation early, expending calories that they can’t afford to lose.

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And rodents like mice and voles that spend their winters buried in the snow had little to protect them from the cold this year.

If their population suffered, it will eventually have an effect on predators such as foxes and coyotes, which probably had a high survival rate this winter because the lack of snow would have made it easier for them to travel and find food, Hitchcox said.

OH DEER, AVOID THOSE TICKS

That also goes for deer and moose, which had an abundance of apples and acorns to feed off of, he said, but they may also suffer from the warm weather, as the resulting abundance of ticks could pose a problem for them.

Another group of critters that likely had a very successful winter are ticks, including the Lyme disease-carrying deer tick.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photo A female deer tick walks on a corduroy 'flag' that was swiped over underbrush at the Kennebunk Plains by Melanie Renell, a field technician for the Vector-borne Disease Laboratory of the Maine Medical Center Research Institute.

Ticks tend to die off when there are a few weeks in a row of temperatures around zero with no snow cover. That didn’t happen this year. Press Herald File Photo/Gregory Rec

Typically, ticks are out and about for just over half the year in Maine, from the middle of spring to the middle of the fall. The unusually warm weather this winter, however, meant having only two months free from the pests, said Griffin Dill, coordinator of the University of Maine’s tick identification program.

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He said the last tick submitted to the program last year arrived on Christmas Day, and samples started coming back before the middle of March, more than a month early.

More ticks tend to die off during the winter when there are a few weeks in a row of temperatures around zero with no snow on the ground to provide insulation, Dill said. That never happened this year.

“They are going to be out early in higher numbers,” said Dill.

Aside from being a nuisance, that also could mean there will be a greater incidence of Lyme disease, he said. Cases have already been reported to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention this spring.

A look at the latest state data on Lyme disease clearly shows how winter weather plays a key role in the disease.

Lyme cases in Maine actually fell in 2015 to 1,176 cases from 1,399 cases in 2014. The drop in 2015 – the first such drop in at least five years – followed an extremely cold winter that likely causes a large die-off of ticks.

But there already are signs that Lyme cases are going up again because of the milder winter that just ended.

There were 44 cases of Lyme reported to the state in January and February of this year, up 19 percent from January and February of last year.

 


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