Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Robin's Life Work

Note: This program first aired June 22, 2013.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching a pair of robins nesting this spring. For the past several years, they have taken to nesting on human made structures around an outbuilding at my house; on window ledges, on top of propped up ladders, on exposed beams. I’ve watched them in the past, but I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t really pay attention to them, due to a mix of caution and frank snobbery. Part of me didn’t want to disturb them, and part of me thought “oh, well, they are just robins. Robins are everywhere, they are so common, there’s nothing special about them.” This is a trap that naturalists everywhere fall into, we want to spot the rare bird, be the first to find the unusual flower, identify the large mammal tracks. So caught up are we with the excitement of the uncommon that we become blind to the more ordinary friends we see around us on a daily basis; the dandelion, the daisy, the sparrow, the robin.

This year I let go of my pretension. I was in a class, and one of our assignments was to watch a bird for an hour and record our observations. Because I am both an over achiever and an over scheduler, I needed to find an easy bird to observe, something close to home, something predictable, something like a robin nesting on a window ledge right out my front door. I decided that an hour was clearly not long enough, I would watch them during their entire nesting cycle, and document what I saw (that’s the over achieving part). What I learned is that every creature, every organism, every entity out there has something to teach us, if we are willing and open to learn it.

Several weeks ago, the robins began building their nest; The female builds the nest, with help from her mate. I didn’t know that from watching, a little back ground reading never hurt anyone. The pair struggled to construct the nest out of dry grass during high winds. It seemed futile to me. Then it rained, the ground became wet, mud formed. Robins construct a substantial part of their nests from mud, and these robins didn’t make any progress on their nest building until spring weather favored them with some building material. Suddenly, from what looked like a sloppy pile of mud on a window sill, a beautiful grass lined nest was formed. Next the female seemed to be testing out the nest, sitting in it some times leaving it other times. I realized she was preparing to lay eggs. One day I saw an egg in the nest, and worried that she had abandoned it, as she was not there every time I looked. Again, just as suddenly there were four eggs in the nest, and she was sitting consistently. Robins, like many birds will delay the incubation until all the eggs in her clutch are laid, so they all hatch at the same time. Her spotty attendance to the nest was what I was observing, by not sitting on the eggs she was keeping them cool so they wouldn’t start to develop.

The book said that the eggs would hatch in 12 to 14 days, so I marked the range of due dates on my calendar. The first due  day two eggs had hatched, the second day a third egg had hatched, and by the third day all four had hatched. That meant that the first two had a two day head start on the last hatchling, and I wondered how that would play out in nest dynamics. The book also said that they would fledge in 14 to 16 days, meaning they would grow from helpless pink featherless grubs to fully feathered birds in about two weeks. I couldn’t believe that, so I decided to photo document their growth, with a single picture each day. It turns out that a photo really is worth a thousand words. By day 12 the largest nestling had fledged. By day 13 the next one had. Today is day 14. I fully expect that by the end of today when I go out and look, the nest will be empty.

In watching these animals, who I am so grateful to for accommodating my curiosity, I was given a gift. I saw how fast those babies grew, and thought of all of my friends and their children, and my young niece and nephew. I watched the mother sit faithfully on the nest for two weeks, and then saw the father return to share feeding responsibilities with the mother once the eggs had hatched. I was aware of the parents’ alarm when I would approach the nest for my lightening fast once daily photo, observing how the young would immediately lower themselves in the nest in response to their parents’ calls. When darkness fell each night, I would imagine the mother robin, sitting on her nest in the dark, with only her self between her babies and the unknown and hungry night beyond. Raising those babies is truly a robin’s life work. What kind of person am I if I am not awed by that?

As we enter this period of summer’s bounty and ease, pick something, anything, anything you will see on a daily basis, don’t wait for the Blackburnian warbler or the rose pogonia. Watch it until it brings you to your knees. I promise you, your life will be richer for it.


The Birder’s Handbook Paul Ehrlich et al, 1988 Simon and Schuster, the Bible for concise  go to info about North American bird natural history.

Nice little website about robins, including opportunities for citizen science.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The History of Maine Part 12: Humans and the Future of Maine

Note: This program first aired on June 15, 2013.

We’re spending a few weeks here on the world around us, tracing the deep history of Maine, from its geological genesis to the current day. We’ve reached the end of this series with a look the general trends of the human impacts on the Maine landscape.

If we had to summarize what happened to Maine as a result of human impact we could summarize it thusly: forest, farm forest. As we have said previously, the post glacial biotic community here is forest, at least in the current climatic regime. That is no surprise, follow the 45th parallel around the globe and what you will find is temperate forest world wide. The composition of that forest has changed over the past 12,000 years, but in the face of any disturbance, trees are what grow back here. We can consider European settlers as a major disturbance to this forest community, their direct impact peaked in the late 19th century, that is the “farm” part of the forest, farm, forest pattern. Since that time for a number of social and economic reasons, the forests have returned (not that they ever actually went that far in the first place).

European settlers first arrived in Maine in the early 17th century and for nearly 150 years enjoyed a precarious existence, eeking out a living tied to the coast line and coastal rivers and estuaries and warring with each other, and with the native population, which had been decimated soon after the Europeans arrived by European pathogens. By 1670 a whopping 3500 English settlers lived along the coast and coastal rivers, west of Penobscot Bay, with additional French settlers to its east. The low population numbers and the instability caused by constant conflict kept the impact of these new human colonists fairly low. Deforestation was strongly limited to the immediate coast, and up river valleys, and consisted of clearing for subsistence agriculture, and targeted harvesting of oak for barrels and white pines for ship masts.

Here is where geopolitics influences ecology. Once the American Revolution settled things and relative stability spread across the area, the population of “not yet Maine” grew dramatically. With this population increase came significant increases in land clearing and forest harvesting. It is important to take a moment and parse out these various levels of human impact. Land cleared for agriculture could be one of three things; land cleared for pasturing grazing animals, land cleared for hay fields and land cleared for tillage and the planting of crops. At its peak in the late 19th century, Maine was as much as 15% cleared for these uses (a number that has only gone back down from that time). Cutting in the forest was targeted at white pine for lumber, hemlock for the tanneries, oaks for barrels and ship building, and other hard woods for fuel wood, for both Maine and the Boston market. Forestry at that time was targeted, clear cutting was not part of the system, and wouldn’t be until the late 20th century.

This boom continued in the 19th century, until the time of the civil war and just after. At that point farms began to be abandoned with amazing speed, as the rail roads opened up the mid west (and their deep rich more easily farmed soils) and the economic center of gravity in America shifted from the Northeast westward. Forestry changed as well, as the best lumber logs became harder and harder to find, it was only the advent of the pulp and paper industry in the late 1800’s that kept the forest industry alive in the state. So Maine, the pine tree state, achieved its cleared land maximum just after the civil war, and has been growing trees back ever since. Even the spruce bud worm out break of the 1970’s and the change to industrial land ownership and subsequent clear cutting  in the second half of the 20th century have not managed to change the undeniable fact, in Maine, if you turn your back, a tree will sprout. It was only through constant back breaking vigilance that Maine was as cleared as it was in the mid 19th century.

Will it always be so? I doubt it. If there is one constant on Earth it is change. Now our actions will be influencing the Maine landscape well beyond clearing for agriculture or cutting trees in the forest. As climate changes in the coming decades, I doubt that Maine will become a treeless landscape, but a thousand years from now? Who knows? The biotic community we see around us is a result of the average temperature and the amount of water that falls from the sky, both factors that stand to be significantly altered by changing climate. So it seems that the tale of humans’ impact on the Maine landscape isn’t finished after all.

And thus concludes our look into the deep history of the Maine landscape. The tale may not be done, but this series is. Keep your eyes open and read the signs in your own neighborhood. You will be amazed, as I have been, where that story takes you.


If this kind of history floats your boat, I can’t recommend this book enough: Andrew Barton and friends The Changing Nature of the Maine Woods. Readable and excellent!

A classic: William Cronin’s Changes in the Land. This one looks at the impact of Native Americans on the primeval forest, and is definitely weighted more towards southern New England. Lots of good information though.

Colin Woodard’s The Lobster Coast provides a comprehensive overview of the history of the people in Maine, particularly along the coast. Though “lobster” is the unifying theme, there is a tremendous amount of environmental history is this book. Very readable, super interesting.

Curious about the future? Check out this report from the UMaine Climate Change Institute: “ Maine’s Climae Future”

The History of Maine: Part 11 First Humans in Maine

Note: This program first aired on June 1, 2013.

We’re spending a few weeks here on the world around us, tracing the deep history of Maine, from its geological genesis to the current day. We’ve reached the third and final (for now) chapter in Maine’s deep history, and it is one we all have a hand in. Before we dive in though, lets quickly recap first two aspects of the existence of the Maine landscape.

About 600 million years ago the very faintest hints of the beginning of Maine were in the air. As a result of the constant movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, coastal sediments were accreted on to the edge of the North American plate, and volcanic activity added new igneous rock to the mix as well, both above and below the surface. Additionally, little bits of continental plate that likely originated on the ancient European continent also became plastered to the edge of North America. By bits and pieces, the crust of Maine was formed. Two million years ago, the northern hemisphere entered an ice age, and continental glacier after continental glacier advanced over the Maine landscape, scouring and smoothing, and dumping the rocky sediment that challenges gardeners throughout the state.

The last glacier retreated from the state between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago, and the Maine landscape was likely recolonized with Arctic tundra plants, which were then rapidly outcompeted by a forest community as climate continued to warm. Paleopollen analysis indicates that the post glacial environment was mainly forested (with a variety of community compositions). So the types and sizes of trees may have been somewhat different, but after the glaciers left, Maine didn’t look shockingly different than it does today, at least to the casual observer. Botanists and foresters may argue this point, but I think it is important to understand that in the big picture, Maine is solidly a forest community.

It is likely that as soon as there was large game in the post glacial forest, people were here as well. There is archeological evidence to support this. And while there were multiple native cultures that flourished at various times during this post glacial epoch, current thinking posits that the native populations here had a relatively low population density (relative to southern New England or the southeast US), due to an almost entirely hunter gatherer lifestyle. Agriculture was  used in more southern regions, and in far southern Maine, but not in the majority of the state. So, early native populations had some kind of impact on the Maine environment, but it was strongly limited by the low population density and lifestyle. Geographically, evidence suggests that the native populations were concentrated on the coast, so for vast stretches of Maine, while there may have been human activity in the past 10,000 years, it left little impact.

In terms of human impact, European colonization was the turning point. It began in earnest in 1607 with the failed Popham colony, and the various French and English 17th century trading and fishing outposts. These early developments were entirely coastal, as transportation was water based. Just think about that for a moment. There were no roads, just overland foot paths. If you wanted to get anywhere you got in a boat. Think about how access to transportation, in this case, the water, must have guided settlement, and in fact, limited it to the thinnest of strips right along coastal waterways and eventually, up major rivers as well. European’s ties to the water, as well as conflict with the native populations kept the majority of human impact along the coast for nearly 200 years.                                     

We’ll look at what happened next, next week, when we finish the chapter of the human influence on the Maine landscape, and perhaps even peer into the future.


Terrific new book by Andrew Barton and friends The Changing Nature of the Maine Woods. Readable and excellent!

A classic: William Cronin’s Changes in the Land. This one looks at the impact of Native Americans on the primeval forest, and is definitely weighted more towards southern New England. Lots of good information though.

Recently Maine Public Broadcasting did an interesting call in show about the first people in Maine. Listen to it here: