Category Archives: Ecology

Sleuthing Out the Truth About Snapping Turtles (Part 1)

As a kid spending summers on Little Sebago Lake in southern Maine, I was used to seeing snapping turtles. My brother, Tad, and I liked to hang out under the dock,—and we stared down the snapping turtles. Their trapezoidal heads poked up out of the water, nostrils flaring. When the snappers, or mud turtles, weren’t swimming in the lake, they hid in the marshy grove beside our camp. Neither my brother nor I were ever bitten by a snapper, but the possibility was there, under the dock—a thrill that propelled us a little faster through the water some days. Until this summer, I had not seen a snapping turtle at the lake since the early 1990s. One snapping turtle is back in our cove this summer, making a home near Fish Rock. We recognized its dark brown shell and distinctive-shaped head and hooked beak-like snout, used for capturing prey and self-defense, as it periodically inspected the surface, hiding beneath a mat of weedy reeds.  Since the arrival of the snapper, the ducks and their babies have not made their usual pass through our cove.

So far, the snapper is alone, which makes sense since snapping turtles are not social creatures.  She or he has made a home along a reef beside a peninsula that points to the Sand Bar, a favorite destination of boaters in the three-basin lake. Little Sebago is on the state’s top ten list for “most threatened by development,” and there has been a milfoil problem due to increased boat traffic after the town’s approval for a public boat launch. A number of local nonprofit organizations, such as Lakes Environmental Association and the Little Sebago Lake Association, have led projects to improve water quality and educational efforts about algae and wildlife habitat in the lakes region of southern Maine.

But common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are not unique to Maine; in fact, Maine falls within the northeast part of their range, including Nova Scotia. Snappers are found in the Gulf of Mexico—in Florida (along with a different species, the Florida snapping turtle) and the Texas coast, all along the Atlantic/east coast, and as far west as the Rocky Mountains. These turtles have been paddling in and out of North American wetlands for 80 million years. Adult snapping turtles prefer marshes, swamps, muddy still water, shallow lakes and ponds, while the hatchlings and juveniles live in small streams. Juveniles have small toothy ridges on their carapace called keels. When snapping turtles are young, they are easy prey for predators, including herons, bullfrogs, snakes, alligators and fish like bass or pike. Once a snapper is an adult, nothing messes with it, besides a human. The mobility of the turtle’s neck, which never fully retreats into its shell, allows it to reach out and snap—surprisingly fast.

Because they are poor swimmers, snappers do not like deep water, and can drown if they can’t reach the surface, or get to land easily. They need a combination of wetland habitat types to thrive, but can be found in both urban and rural areas. Oddly enough, they can gowithout water for a couple of weeks and even swim in the ocean while they are migrating from a stream or river to a pond or marsh. Large males are territorial and choose a fixed spot for their home but females tend to move around, possibly going back and forth between “homes” along the shoreline of lakes, ponds and marshes or swamps. For some amazing photos of snapping turtles in Virginia wetlands, visit:

When wetland habitat dries up and there is less water, a snapping turtle will be forced to move to another location to live. Sometimes this involves crossing roads, which explains why we sometimes see a crushed turtle on the side of the road, and wonder, “why did the turtle cross the road?

Despite their intimidating reputation, snappers are omnivorous, eating mostly aquatic vegetation. If ducklings are readily available, a snapping turtle might take one, but it’s incidental. Snappers may eat frogs and other amphibians, small mammals (like a mouse), mollusks and other invertebrates, and rarely—small birds. Snapping turtles may be poor swimmers but they are clever.  When a wetland is matted with algae, snapping turtles use the cover to hide beneath and grab shorebirds by the feet. The turtles’ effect on game fish and shorebirds populations is minimal. For more information about their interactions with waterfowl, visit:

Next week, I will uncover the Legends of Snapping Turtles.

Further reading on blogs about common snapping turtles:

“Detroit Wildlife: Common Snapping Turtle” by Laura Sternberg, July 2011

“Snapping Turtle Expresses Displeasure at Being Plucked from Pond” by Mark Frauenfelder, July 2011

“The Secret Life of Snapping Turtles” by John Marshall, January 2009

“The Snapping Turtle” by Ted Levin, Vermont Public Radio, October 2008:

To read Part 2: Legends of the Snapping Turtle, click here.

Wild Things Look for New Haunts, Creep into Our World

Of all the Maine islands I visited during a summer field course on island ecology in summer ’99, Crotch Island seemed to me a ghostland: silent quarry equipment gave way to nature. Grasses and vines snaked over crawlers, ospreys nested atop cranes and frogs swam in pools that filled pockets in the granite. The island had an interesting history, too. When Jackie Onassis arranged for JFK’s Memorial in the Arlington National Cemetery, she picked the pinkest granite from Crotch Island, the last major island quarry operation in Maine. It’s a beautiful rose hue. The day I visited the island, I spotted wildlife that adopted the abandoned machinery like funny characters in an odd Wonderland. Rabbits flashed into view and disappeared through old tires, a magic trick.

But this is not so uncommon! When nature resumes its role and vegetation grows over man-made structures, the creatures return, too. In other instances, wildlife sneaks into buildings uninvited and takes up residence, if only temporary. Recently a young Cooper’s hawk, probably enticed by pigeons that roosted in the rooftop of the Library of Congress, flew around inside of the dome-shaped ceiling for a week. It had to be lured down by frozen quail. Library staff consulted FWS, as the bird is an endangered species.

Bats often use man-made structures like bridges, culverts, mineshafts, attics, and of course, bat houses, Porcupines, which live in hardwood forests and forested swamps, just want to be left alone to eat their veggie diet, preferably Eastern hemlock. But the tree has been under attack by an invasive insect, and that paired with habitat loss has sent the porcupines into man-made structures, where they will gnaw on anything from furniture to vehicle undercarriages. Supposedly the porcupine likes the sodium.

Wind turbines have been a subject of much discussion over whether their presence will harm bird populations. Birds might think, “hey, this is a neat place to perch,” until they get knocked off when the turbines are in use. Newer models of wind turbines are designed to reduce bird mortality.

While some people think that certain wild animals are “nuisance” species, others want to attract wildlife to their backyards. Here’s a USGS guide to attracting wildlife to one’s backyard—with some precautions to keep in mind: Eccentric folks like to create a way to enjoy watching wildlife, as seen here (in honor of Squirrel Appreciation Day) in this backyard “Mission Impossible” sequence: Huffington Post recently posted a blog by a National Wildlife Federation naturalist David Mizejewski on how to properly dispose an opossum with a hilarious video that lets viewers know about their options. My favorite part is when “Pink Mama” proposes using cryogenics to freeze the opossum’s head, closely followed by the condolence card. More sensibly, the Southern Californian opossum enthusiast known as “Pink Mama,” advises contacting a wildlife rehabilitator in the event of finding a dead or injured opossum on the side of the road, but only after feeling its stomach to see if there are “squiggly babies” inside.

Basically, animals move into our world all the time, whether we want them to, or whether they’d rather be in more desirable habitat. Beavers and raccoons will travel through culverts and sewers, if there are no other ways to get from one wetland to another. Wildlife stream crossings research has been an important way for biologists to understand the movement of certain species in fragmented habitat, especially where roads have segmented a forest or wetland. For more information, visit:

Update: Eagles Attack Customers at Post Office in Alaska

Mark Trail – What a Guy!

Mark Trail is my ideal man. He loves the outdoors—fishing, watching wildlife, whitewater rafting, blazing a trail through the woods. Mark Trail was an “environmentalist” long before it was cool to be one. He’s got well-established values but he’s also a forward-thinker. An old soul, forever 32. He’s a writer *swoon* and always getting into dangerous adventures. Often he discovers some kind of environmental crime and solves the mystery (sometimes punching the bad guy!) He loves animals, wetlands and hardheaded women. And did I mention his muscular arms and dashing good looks? Mark’s got that plucky hands-on-hips quality that makes me drool. Oh, wait, he’s married. Wait again, he’s a character from a comic strip. I always fall for the imaginary guys.

“Mark Trail,” a comic strip created by artist and naturalist Ed Dodd, later joined by Jack Elrod,  has been teaching people about the importance of protecting natural resources since the 1950s. Wetlands are one of Mark’s biggest passions. In a recent newspaper, I came across this comic that highlights the duck stamp program.

Apparently, the artists’ inspiration for the character came from the real life conservation hero, Charles N. Elliott (November 29, 1906 – May 1, 2000), a U.S. forest ranger who edited Outdoor Life magazine from 1956 to 1974. Mark Trail comics have been used in FWS publications to help educate children about conservation. The comic strip is featured in the cartoon section of 176 newspapers across the country.

For more information, check out the comic strip here:

Mark Trail


Eco-art is a fresh movement led by artists seeking to explore humans’ relationship with nature. It has an agenda. Some contemporary artists are working on projects that deal with timely environmental issues like climate change. Chris Drury, who is most known for his fantastic woven tree installations, is doing research to make climate change models in art form in conjunction with The Center for Analysis of Time Series in the U.K.. Learn more about his work at New Hampshire based eco-artist Tim Gaudreau shares his view that “it is the responsibility of the artist to communicate a relevant vision about our world and society.” His work includes “Lost & Found” type posters that show trash found in wildlife preserves. Gaudreau posted a good definition of eco-art on his website here:

Patricia Johanson’s eco-art is concerned with “impacted ecosystems” in large-scale projects, including some that look like restored wetlands. The Island Institute published a book dedicated to Johanson’s work called, Art and Survival in 2006. Find out more here: For a video of an interview with the artist talking about ecology and a wetlands park, go here. 

On my bulletin board, I have a postcard from a Sandy Litchfield installation called “Captive” that invokes the spirit of Swampthing. With installations titled, “Fill,” “Streamlines,” “Freshwater,” “Around the Lake,” and another called “Plenty of Particulars” that resembles the Cowardin classification system in full color, I wondered if she paid particular attention to wetlands. So I asked her. She told me that her husband is a geo-scientist who works on projects related to climate change, and although conservation issues are important to her, Litchfield is “less inclined to paint about humans as destroyers or polluters of place.” She added, “I’m more interested in how and when humans have felt or expressed intimacy, fondness and love of place. It’s this deep affection that inspires most of my work. Mostly, I want to include the human element in landscape not as an adversary, but as a lover.” See examples of her work at

My friend and fellow human ecologist, Josie Rassat, donated some of her wetland-themed art to ASWM last year. Josie says, “Cycles, balances of life, death and reproduction are central themes in my illustrations. I create art like compost: a complex mixture of old growth with organic materials becomes stimulating, earthy substance.” Her saltmarsh series is here:

Many artists have been creating art in the aftermath of Katrina events. Claire Fenton is a fiber artist working in Louisiana. Some of her pieces are called, “Katrina,” “Riverscape,” “Winter Swamp.” Find samples of her work, e.g. Edward Richards’ photographs document Katrina’s impact:

Check out this blog all about wetlands featured in art:

Meanwhile these art museums look more like alien ships that have landed in a wetland:

Or this “elevated wetland” art installation in Toronto (2006)

Wetland poster art can be found here:

Bolsa Chica Wetlands art photos by Eddie Meeks

Eco Art by Debbie Mathew (Discovery Pond: Wetland Art) based in Wyoming with illustrations by 6th graders learning about a local wetland

For more information about eco-art and to find eco-artists, visit:

The Common Cormorant, or Shag, Poses a Management Quagmire

As a little girl, one of my favorite books was a collection of nonsense poetry. I think it rubbed off on my own lyrical taste for funny rhymes. Any time my family went to the beach or lake and I spotted a cormorant, I’d recite this poem by Christopher Isherwood:

The common cormorant (or shag)
Lays eggs inside a paper bag,
The reason, you see no doubt,
Is to keep the lightning out.

But what these unobservant birds
Have never thought of, is that herds
Of wandering bears might come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

This strange behavior seemed perfectly reasonable to me, a budding human ecologist at the age of five. Now that I’m older and tend to question things I’ve read, I thought I’d better get it straight. The common cormorant, or shag, does not lay its eggs inside a paper bag; it sometimes chooses a cliff and uses sticks and grass, algae and feathers, often guano as a cement for the sturdy but messy nests. If trees are an option, the shag will build nests in them. From the 1894 article, “A Cormorant Rookery” by H.R. Taylor, “the great ungainly birds crane their necks this way and that, fearing to scramble away into flight lest their nests be robbed of their eggs or young. It would appear that the innate ugliness of the young cormorant would be sufficient guarantee against invasion, but to make their peculiar sort of defense more effective, I have seen Farallone cormorants, when I came quite near, go into contortions and disgorge the contents of their gullets. This cormorant seems to fear having its claim be jumped by another bird,” which is why it tends to build in inaccessible areas like the ledge under a crag.

In Rachel Carson’s lifetime, the pesticide DDT nearly wiped out the cormorant, or shag, but now the bird is thriving. It isn’t the most popular bird on the block. Bird-watchers will pull their binoculars away in search of a loon or an osprey—anything but a cormorant. The shag is a creepy snake-like black bird. I think there are numerous species of cormorants: these include the black cormorant (P. carbo), Brandt’s, Great, Olivaceous, Pelagic, Red-faced, the pied cormorant (P. varius), the white-breasted cormorant (P. fuscescens), the little pied cormorant (P. melanoleucos), the little black cormorant (P. ater) and the double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus). The Double-crested Cormorant lives along inland waterways as well as in coastal areas. Eating a pound of fish (per bird) each day, a large group of cormorants can make quite an impact on a local fish population. They have nasty nest-building strategies and their sticky guano kills tree roots, trashing the vegetation and driving out other wildlife. There are groups that advocate for the killing of these unpopular birds and at least one group of anglers was arrested for killing hundreds of cormorants in Lake Ontario. The Cormorant Defenders International group wants to protect the shag. Currently there is an effort to control the cormorant population along the St. Lawrence River with a 13% decrease in nests success rate. For more on this story about the population control work, as covered by the Environment Report, visit:

For a March 2009 news release by FWS, Agencies Release Final Decision on Double-crested Cormorant Damage Management in Wisconsin, go to:

For USGS info on the Double-crested Cormorant, go to:

For Audubon info, go to:

For FWS Cormorant Management info, go to:

Just Eat It. Edible Wetlands…

Just eat it. Can’t beat it. An “edible wetland” helps teach kids about wetland ecology. Growing up on the coast of Maine, I nibbled saltgrass as a child and learned which seaweeds were edible. My parents taught me which plants were safe to eat in the woods and saltmarsh, and which plants to admire but not pick. But there are lots of ways to teach kids about wetlands…

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency developed a kit for teachers working with kids in grades 3-6 learning about wetlands. The kit includes a “mouth-watering” recipe for an edible wetland. Here’s the idea: Students discuss the word “wetlands” and life that depends on them. Students think of different life forms that exist around wetlands. After identifying the life forms, students may build their own “wetland” out of edible materials. Here’s the list of ingredients:

Materials for Edible Wetland

The amounts listed below will vary dependent upon the number of students involved. You will need a half a sheet of brownies or chocolate cookie bars, and one green and one blue fruit roll-up per group of 4 to 5 students. Other ingredients can be used for several groups.

• 9″x13″pan of brownies or chocolate cookie bars prepared ahead of time – soil base of wetland
• Graham cracker crumbs – sand
• Instant chocolate pudding or pudding cups – mud
• Blue fruit roll-up – body of water
• Green fruit roll-up – aquatic plants
• Fish shaped crackers – fish
• Green lollypops – trees and shrubs
• Green chewy fruit candy to anchor the lollypops
• Gumdrops – shrubs
• Gummy bears -animals
• Animal crackers – animals
• Coconut dyed with green food coloring – grass
• Milk for pudding preparation (if not using pudding cups)
• Large mixing bowl (if not using pudding cups)
• A cookie sheet on which to create a wetland

For full instructions on how to create an edible wetland as a teaching tool for kids, go to:

For an award-winning video, “Wetlands and Wonder: Reconnecting Children with Nearby Nature” as developed by EPA Region 8, visit:

What is a Fairy House?

A fairy house, or gnome home, is a small structure built in the woods, usually found at the base of a tree, or in lower branches, alongside a mossy tree stump, or driftwood on a beach. Building materials include natural and found things from the woods, but sometimes people add common household items, such as a button, a bottle cork, a piece of string. It is a 100+ year tradition in Maine, especially along the coast and on the islands. But fairy houses can be found throughout the country, and in other countries. In Maine the tradition dates back to the early 1900s, when many island communities had working farms. Traveling schoolteachers from Massachusetts brought folk tales involving fairies that inspired islanders—children and adults alike—to build gnome homes to attract fairies in order to watch over the livestock and children during Maine winters. A fairy house traditionally included a tiny altar with a small offering, such as a coin, to pay the fairies to help the farmers; if there was a particularly harsh winter, and children or livestock died, the more superstitious islanders blamed the fairies.

Over the decades, fairy houses—whether to allow them, for instance, has been a controversy on some Maine islands, including Monhegan. (Wall Street Journal covered this story in 1999, along with several Maine newspapers). I have found fairy houses on over 60 of Maine’s islands, and have built them over the years in many “secret” locations throughout Maine. Every mother I met on the islands I visited believed that her children originated the fairy house idea but this is actually a centuries old tradition in some parts of the world. I have also witnessed as competitive parents stabilized their kids’ gnome homes with hot glue guns, duct tape and staples. In this case, the structure was really built in a workshop at home, then transplanted to the base of a tree. Generally, fairy houses are not permanent structures; they last until the end of summer or fall, then disintegrate during a typical rainstorm. In places where there are anti-fairy house forces, such as groups of people called, “Stompers,” sometimes the gnome home lasts only until it is discovered, which is why it is important to build anonymously, minimally and somewhere hidden. In other communities, fairy houses are enjoyed and even maintained by people—or gnomes—who can say for sure—and can last decades.

This week I helped teach local fourth-graders how to build “eco-friendly” fairy houses in Black Brook Preserve here in Windham, Maine. I’ve developed worksheets and taught elementary school kids how to think about fairy houses, or gnome homes, in an eco-friendly way. In fact, I became a sort of expert in the topic after completing a year-long project at College of the Atlantic. I visited over 25 Maine islands and researched the fairy house tradition on the Maine coast, and then wrote my college senior thesis on the ecological, political and historical aspects of the long-held tradition.