rj mere - writer


The mysteries of Arctic sea smoke

Driving along the ocean on Fortunes Rock Road one very chilly sunrise last week, Arctic sea smoke suspended over the ocean like wispy ghosts.  It’s been a while since this column covered that topic and now is an appropriate time as ever was to highlight this natural phenomenon.

In plain and simple terms, sea smoke is moisture in the air which is colder than the water temperature and is suspended above the surface of the water as a fog.  Sea smoke can occur on any water be it ocean, pond, lake, or river as long as the air temperature is colder.

Right now the ocean water temperature along Fortunes Rocks is 37 degrees Fahrenheit. The air temperature above the warmer water on that morning was 11 below zero on Fahrenheit scale. 

The interesting part of sea smoke is the invisible factor that makes it happen.

When the air layer above the water surface reaches 100 percent saturation the continuous evaporation of moisture cannot be absorbed fast enough and re-condenses as a layer fog sandwiched between the two layers.  We see a similar phenomenon in the summer when the soil is warmer than the morning air. 

Within the Arctic sea smoke topic, we can see a more dramatic event called lake-effect (or ocean-effect) snow when there are cold air winds sweeping across larger bodies water with warmer water temperatures.  The moisture that re-condenses comes as snow.    

Perhaps the most well known occurrence is the lake-effect snow falls on the lee side of the Great Lakes.  During the winter it’s not uncommon to hear reports of large amounts of snowfall along the shores of these large bodies of water. 

Tug Hill region of New York State is well known for its record snowfall where it can reach depths of five or more feet.  The regional record for the most snowfall in one day is six feet and five inches in the town of Montague.  Lake-effect snow is definitely a notch up from Arctic sea smoke but there’s yet another more intense level of this occurrence. 

Lake-effect blizzards are the extreme of lake-effect snow events.  These blizzards come with more intense winds and can obliterate visibility to zero.

Along with zero visibility another dangerous aspect of lake-effect blizzard is called thunder snow.  This is a result of intense energy generated by the storm which is manifested by thunder with the possibility of lightning.

I’ll take wisps of Arctic sea smoke over that any day.


A room with a view on The Pool

Published 12-26-2012

Fall came earlier than the date printed on the calendar this year. 

Waterfowl, ignorant of our system of counting days, months, and years, moved for migration earlier than I've seen in previous years.  Could this be a wildlife prediction of a harsh winter?  I doubt it.  The October evening temperatures plunging into the 30’s probably had more to do with it.

The view from our small beach cottage overlooks the ever changing tidal water called The Pool, named for the tiny historical community, Biddeford Pool, at the end of a peninsula.  The Pool is encompassed by two peninsulas, both offering a protective geological hug to the area. 

The view changes drastically every six hours. The tides pull nearly all the water out through the channel between where the two peninsulas meet each other.  A few rivulets flow through a vast area of exposed mudflats.

The mudflats are a rich resource for the commercial and recreational clam diggers licensed by the city of Biddeford.  There’s a large area that is exposed just as the tide starts to fall where the commercial diggers reach it by boat. They begin their arduous work immediately, digging long trenches, 12 inches deep, exposing succulent soft-shelled clams for the market.  They work non stop as more of the clamflats surrounding them are exposed and their boats are left high and dry. 

The area also attracts numerous flocks of gulls, ducks, geese, terns, cormorants and many more waterfowl.  These flocks change with timing of the seasons.  The Arctic tern is the first to vacate the area and will return next spring, after flying several thousands of miles, mostly over the ocean waters. 

The Great egret is still here and the Great Blue Heron.  They stand majestically watching the flocks of common terns noisily diving into schools of baitfish trapped in the shallow drainage.  Soon, the baitfish will move offshore and many more shorebirds will leave the area too.

Rafts of black ducks, each containing two to three dozen birds, dot the open area.  They are constantly on the move and feeding.  Right now, their diet is predominantly periwinkles, seed clams, worms, and crabs.  Many black ducks remain in the coastal waters throughout the winter but some will fly farther south.

Both the blue teals and the green teals have left. Their visit to The Pool is a short one on their migration south.  The eiders and golden eyes and buffleheads will be our winter residents although some of them will follow migrating flocks of birds as well.

There is the occasional loon coming to feed in the winter months and waiting for spring ice out to occur on their freshwater lakes and ponds.  Their lonesome cry is haunting and made more so by the starkness of winter flora along the mud banks of the tidal waters. 

The eagles and the osprey now make their homes in the area and they attract attention of avid birders. 

A woman approached me asking to borrow the binoculars strapped to my chest.  She asked if I had seen the eagle she spotted just a few minutes earlier.  To my embarrassment, I had not seen the bird because I was too focused on playing fetch with Woody.  That’s a common "problem" with Golden retrievers; all they want to do is play.

When the woman handed back the binoculars I glassed the healthy mature eagle perched a dozen feet above the water.  I don’t care how many bald eagles I've seen (they are as plentiful in Alaska as herring gulls are in New England), they still are magnificent birds.

The returning tide floats the clam digger’s boat once again and he continues to dig and bag clams even as the water laps at his heels.  Big bags, heavy bags, two or three of them, are placed in the boat even as the water is now half way up his boots. 

He slides into the boat and its motor starts with the first pull.  He heads for shore and to market as the wake of his boat fans out behind him.


The Geminids are coming; Keep looking up!

 Published 12-11-2012

The last of the 2012 meteor showers is coming up and the two remaining showers will wrap up the year for the star gazers among us. There are several noted meteor showers every year and we can schedule our time in advance to be sure we are at the right place and time to view them.  They are relatively predictable so we can even expect a certain range of numbers of meteors per hour. 

There are, in fact, about 25 million meteors entering the earth’s atmosphere on a daily basis.  Many of these are specks of dust but for the most part, we don’t pay any attention to these unscheduled invaders of our atmosphere. However, we do get excited, or at least interested, in the known meteor showers.  Let’s explore a few of the upcoming ones. 

Before we begin, we should be aware that a couple of influences could affect the ability to view the celestial event.  Cloud cover for star gazers is no fun.  Nor is a full moon with its bright light drowning out the weaker short-lived streaks of meteors.  Experiencing meteor showers is a bit demanding on the sleep pattern but the sacrifice is worth the effort not to mention bragging rights to your friends later in the day.  In fact, only your geek friends will be impressed but don’t let that stop you from bragging!  Perhaps someone will join you for the next event.   One last point before we get to talk about specific meteor showers is that most of the scheduled meteor showers occur over a range of nights preceding and following the peak night. There will be fewer meteors than the peak night will provide but if the sky is clear of clouds the night before the peak and a cloudy period is expected for subsequent evenings, why not take advantage of the clear night even though the intensity is diminished somewhat?  

The Geminids meteor shower will peak on the morning of December 14, between 1am and 3am.  Fifty to 100 meteors per hour will shoot out of the early morning sky directly overhead of the viewer.  The dark new moon during this meteor shower is a plus and we should be able to see the upper number of meteors.

 The Ursids meteor shower is the last of the meteor showers of 2012.  They arrive during the evening of December 22 and throughout the night and into the early morning of December 23.  There will be about 15 to 25 per hour coming out of the north sky.    The intensity will be diminished a bit by an every brightening moon which becomes full in five days.   

If the weather or personal schedule prevent  viewing these last two meteor showers do not fret: the 2013 season starts January 3-4.  The Quadrantids meteor shower will come out of the north sky numbering about 70 per hour.   Here again, the peak is on the morning of January 4 but few number of meteors may be viewed between December 28 and January 14.  

Back in the 70’s and up through the years, once a week, I very much looked forward to watching the closing minutes of PBS television just before they shut down the station broadcasting for the day.  Jack Horkheimer, the original host of Star Gazer, came on for one to five minutes and had an infectious excitement of all things in the evening sky.  His parting words were always, “Keep looking up!”  Horkhemier died in 2012 at the age of 72 from the persistent lung ailment that followed him throughout his entire life. He penned his own epitaph: 

" 'Keep Looking Up' was my life's admonition; I can do little else in my present position"


Poachers eventually lose to high-tech Warden Service  

From the days when settlers first established homes and towns in New England they took what they wanted of fish and wild game.  By the early 1800’s wildlife populations were nearly depleted and states had restrictions on hunting seasons and bag limits for deer, moose, and caribou.  

The enforcement for the hunting regulations came from one or two individuals within a community.  They received pay from the fines and sale of confiscated goods they took from the lawbreakers.  This did very little for the protection of wildlife and it wasn’t until after the Civil War when any form of authority that we recognize as a warden service came about. 

Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine were providing train loads of hunted wildlife to a demanding market in other states.  Market hunters and trappers took what they could from the wild woods and streams with little regard to the laws.   About this time, the three New England states separately formed their organized fish and game warden service with the authority to enforce conservation laws statewide.  

Today, each state has a highly trained and technically sophisticated force of officers with far more assigned tasks than their original counterparts of 140 years ago.  A warden may get a call to join a search and rescue of a lost person or for assisting Border Patrol for illegal crossing.  The Warden Service is instrumental in locating marijuana crops as well as citing snowmobilers for excessive speed or OUI. 

The poacher operates single-minded as his predecessors did centuries before.  Whether it is the thrill of the illegal hunt, to put meat in the freezer, or to sell to an illegal market, his motives haven’t changed all that much.  His equipment and maybe his technique has advanced but he’d be better off playing the odds at a casino than to continue playing the cat and mouse game with the Warden Service.  The reason is simple: The poacher is one person and the Warden Service is a team plus more.  Sure, the poacher may have a friend or three involved but there’s no honor in thieves, as the saying goes.  

The Warden Service not only works as a team but with the proliferation of mobile phones every citizen witness is a potential assistant to the Service.  To your list of mobile phone contacts add the phone number of the Warden Service you may need from the following list:

  • Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department – Operation Game Thief – 800-752-5378 (outside Vermont, 802-241-3727)  
  • New Hampshire Fish and Game Department – Operation Game Thief – 800-344-4262 (outside New Hampshire, 603-271-3127) 
  • Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife – Operation Game Thief – 800-253-7887 (outside Maine, 207-287-6057)

 Other state information can be found on Humane Society website,  www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/hunting/state-report-a-poacher-for-web.pdf

Speaking of websites, nearly every state has a website page for online reporting a poaching incident. 

Remember: Do not get directly involved in confronting an illegal activity.  Poaching comes from a long history of personal preservation and disregard for law. Many trained wardens have been killed by poachers. 

Use the technology you have to help put an end to the crime.



There’s no place like home - even if it is squirrely

The next time you are out and about or going for your daily exercise walk, crank your eyes up about 45 degrees and notice the leafless trees. 

Probably 90 percent of the trees have shed their leaves by now.  We recall that the leaves fall to the ground when the tree closes off the flow of sap to the leaf and starts to produce a hormone called abscisic acid. Abscisic acid causes a growth of weak cells where the stem of the leaf attaches to the branch called the abscission zone. So now we see the result of nature’s way of sloughing off the old dead leaves and preparing for New England’s six long months of winter weather.

But wait, in amongst the barren branches there is a clump of leaves the seem to huddle together in an attempt to defy gravity and the whole abscisic acid process. That cluster of leaves is actually a nest.  Eastern gray squirrels will build those nests for their summer residence.  They are constructed of woven twigs and branches and then layered inside with leaves.  The squirrel will then burrow into the center and prepare a cozy apartment lined with grasses, moss and other soft materials.  Winter nests are usually built in the fork or sometimes in a hollow opening of a tree.

Gray squirrels have two litters each year.  December and early January mark the first mating season.   With a gestation period of about 45 days, the first litter is born in March or April.  The winter nest provides more protection from predators but also offers more insulation from the harsh winter winds.  Inside the squirrel will line the hollow space with leaves and soft organic material like grass, moss, feathers and animal underfur.  Her young, as many as eight to a litter, will remain in the protection of the nest until fully weaned, which is about 8 weeks after they are born. Males live up to 9 years and females can live up to 12 years.

The second mating season is between May and June.  The female squirrel builds a new leaf nest to raise her young during this gestation period.  The leaf nest of the summer residence is cooler but that comfort can  come with a high price. If the  nest is discovered it is easily dismantled by predators in search of a meal.

Owls, hawks, fishers, black bear, coyotes and foxes hunt and kill squirrels in great numbers. I’ve seen crows attack a squirrel’s nest and clean out the entire contents.  Nature provides for the predators as well as for the squirrel.  Two litters each year totaling 12 to 16 young gives the squirrel population a chance to maintain a steady level. 

The gray squirrel, when not raiding our bird feeders, eat an amazing variety of foods.  We all are aware of  the squirrel’s love of nuts.  They eat nearly every kind of nut that grows within their acre-sized territory.  They eat buds, mushrooms, insects and (this may come as  surprise to most) they occasionally they will raid the nest of a bird and consume the young.

Now that the fall season has stripped the trees of their leaves, we can get a good view of the squirrel’s summer nest and marvel at the ingenuity of the cute but pesky gray squirrel.