See what’s happening on the grounds of the Ames Free Library or nearby areas with “A Glimpse of Nature.” Offered by Lorraine Rubinacci, the library's resident naturalist, this weekly photo blog is a gentle reminder to enjoy the wonders that surround us.
A Glimpse of Nature - "Field Trip"
Recently I enjoyed a short vacation in Machiasport and the surrounding area, so this week’s post will be a field trip to the eastern half of Downeast Maine.
For those not familiar with the region, this is the last 35 miles of coastline before one reaches Campobello Island in Canada. The Atlantic Ocean moderates temperatures here: cool in summer and, for a northern latitude, relatively mild in winter. It is one hardiness zone cooler than Southeastern Massachusetts. Ocean breezes keep the air moist, and there is ample rainfall, virtually the same as in Easton. Snowfall is a bit heavier, and fog is commonplace.
This is a land of conifers, primarily spruces and balsam fir, with some hemlock, larch, white cedar and white pine mixed in. There are also northern hardwoods including yellow birch, paper birch, big-toothed aspen, and mountain ash.
Balsam Fir with upright cones
Fog and clean air encourage the growth of lichens.
Moss -- sphagnum, feather moss, broom moss -- can carpet the forest floor, and fungi thrive in the damp conditions.
Wildflowers like Clintonia, Pyrola, bunchberry and wood sorrel grow among the fallen needles which decay slowly in the cool, acidic conditions. Visiting these balsam-scented, dimly-lit forests is otherworldly. It is like walking on a cushion.
Within these forests, numerous red squirrels feed on conifer buds and seeds. If you are lucky, as I was, you will see another local mammal, the porcupine, who prefers a woody diet. On the trails, I frequently heard white-throated sparrows, thrushes, black-throated green warblers, and woodpeckers.
It should be noted that all of these species and conditions are typical of the spruce-fir ecosystem as it exists on this coastline. In fact, many of them are considered “indicator species” for the maritime spruce-fir plant community. According to ecologist, Patricia Swain, “Natural communities are defined as groups of species that are found together over and over again, usually in particular environmental conditions.” Climate, geology, soil type, and human activity contribute to those conditions. Indicator species have successfully adapted to the challenges.
Of course, not all of Downeast Maine consists of spruce-fir forest. The Downeast Coast ecoregion contains multiple natural communities including ponds, sea cliffs, cobble beaches, peatlands, estuaries, and blueberry barrens. Each has its own assemblage of plants and animals. Here’s a peek at a few that I visited.
The Machias River, a protected waterway that supports Atlantic salmon
Salmon Pond, a coastal plain pond with pipeworts and dragonflies
Jasper Beach, a cobble beach in Machiasport
Lowbush blueberry under cultivation
Estuary at Machiasport with paper birches and poplars
The magnificent headlands at Cutler
My goal in sharing this trip is not to encourage you to visit Downeast Maine or to show off my amateur photography; rather, it is to draw a parallel with my approach to the nature of Easton, Massachusetts. In both cases, I pay more attention to the commonplace than to rarities because, I believe, we take the normal for granted, as if it is somehow less remarkable: familiarity breeds indifference? For the Downeast Coast, “normal” is a blend of the great boreal forest that spans the northern latitudes of Canada, Russia and Northern Europe and elements of the northern hardwood forest. In Easton, “normal” is some form of oak forest with a history of human use. We will explore this more in the coming months.
Learning to recognize the participants in your own natural community gives them a greater reality, increases your understanding of the physical and biological dynamics, and makes living in a place far more interesting. It’s good to know your neighbors . . . of all species. Once you start seeing groups of organisms interacting in one place, it becomes second nature wherever you travel. A change in setting offers a new set of characters with a different “culture.”
The concepts of ecosystem and natural community are ways to organize and understand a very complex world; they help us to see patterns. To learn more about this topic, visit Classification of the Natural Communities of Massachusetts or the Maine Natural Areas Program’s “Natural Communities and Ecosystems.” The EPA’s Ecoregions of New England offers a color-coded map with descriptions, and the “Forest Atlas of the United States” contains a wealth of information and a nationwide perspective.
On the final afternoon of my Maine adventure, I sat quietly watching the estuary outside the cottage, wishing that vacations lasted longer. High tide broadened the river so that the marsh grasses gently swayed with the current. Sun sparkled through the birches, and the common yellowthroat sang as it had since we first arrived. Overhead, an excited osprey headed home with dinner. All very ordinary for this location -- and very wonderful. Then something caught me off guard, not a rarity, but a joy to behold: seals leaping like porpoises in the afternoon glory. What could be better?
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*This item can be accessed through the Commonwealth Catalog
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