We’re clearly “Not from Here.”

When our neighbors from down the road showed up the other morning to make sure we knew hunting season had started, it finally dawned on us that we were really as they say in Maine, “not from here.”  Our thoughtful neighbors came with vests and hats to lend us, all the fluorescent orange that hunters wear.  Apparently, one doesn’t go out the front door without them this time of year if you live outside of town.  Everyone revels in telling us stories of hunters inadvertently mistaking people for deer and how no jury of peers in Maine would convict a hunter of shooting a person who wasn’t dressed in orange. 

I assumed these stories were the rural equivalent of our urban myths, but indeed just this September there is a case where a hunter, guilty of manslaughter is sentenced to nine-months of jail time.

https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2019/09/03/maine-deer-hunter-who-shot-woman-pleads-guilty-to-manslaughter

And an older story from Bangor https://www.nytimes.com/1989/12/09/us/deer-hunter-is-indicted-in-accidental-killing-of-woman-in-maine.html

It’s easy to be afraid of the unfamiliar.  How much caution is really required or appropriate?  It’s hard to judge.  I have to wonder if this isn’t the equivalent of wearing an avalanche beacon while skiing inbounds at Winter Park.  Whatever the case, we now dress in orange whenever we go out the door.  

The lake froze up the other night when the air temperature dropped down to 14 degrees.  The wind had been blowing hard at sunset, pulling up whitecaps.  I had commented that it might be fun to kayak through the surf, except for the temperature, at some point in the afternoon.   Waking in the morning to the glass like surface reflecting a setting moon was something special.  Though the ice melted by the next day, it may have been enough to inspire the loons to leave for the year.  Loons apparently need open water and will not overwinter on frozen lakes.   While we may head to Florida for Thanksgiving, our loons may only fly as far as the coast.  

We’ll miss hearing the loons calling back and forth.  Their sounds provide such a haunting backdrop to our lives here.  The biologists tell us that there are four distinct loon calls; the tremolo, the wail, the yodel and the hoot.  You can hear individual recordings of each here: https://www.loon.org/voice-loon.php

I am still not convinced and think that I’m listening to full-fledged loon conversations, if not outright poetry as I listen to them.  Loon Haiku as it were. 

I could see them hooting:

“Fish, I eat fish

Swallowed whole under water

I can taste blue sky…..”

Loons are of interest to us for another reason.  These birds are the apex predator of their lake environment, the top of the pyramid as they say, and as a result they are the sentinel of their ecosystem for pollution, especially mercury pollution.  Sampling blood from gently trapped loons has become the standard method for following mercury levels across Canada and New England.   [1]  Loons are long lived.  It’s believed that they live for three decades but no one is exactly certain as no one has studied loons long enough to know.  Loons are also extremely territorial.  Most (as in about 80%) will return to the same lake each summer. This habit of returning has led to the belief that they mate for life.  It seems though that their fidelity is to place more than spouse. Whatever, measuring mercury levels in a loon is strongly correlated with mercury levels in the lakes they inhabit and of the fish of those lakes.   [2]

Mercury of course is highly to people and most of us would prefer levels to be as low as possible both in ourselves and our environment.  

High mercury levels do something curious to loon biology.  A loon’s cortisol levels increase with increasing mercury.    [3]. Thus, as mercury levels increases, so does a loon’s anxiety level.  

“The world is not right

We should be more worried

Where else can we go?”

In the last decades great effort has been put toward limiting mercury emissions.  This effort has begun to pay off, albeit slowly. Though whether this effect can be measured in loons yet is still up for debate. [4] \  It may be that lowering mercury levels is associated with a greater chance or what biologists call “reproductive success.”    [5] Loon courtship is never easy but must be even harder for an anxious loon.

With all this loon business on my mind, I am trying to understand the Environmental Protection Agency’s current move to rescind the restrictions currently in place that limit mercury emissions allowed from coal fired power plants.  

It was reported on October 31, 2019 that:  “The Trump administration is expected to roll back an Obama-era regulation meant to limit the leaching of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury into water supplies from the ash of coal-fired power plants, according to two people familiar with the plans.  With a series of new rules expected in the coming days, the Environmental Protection Agency will move to weaken the 2015 regulation that would have strengthened inspection and monitoring at coal plants, lowered acceptable levels of toxic effluent and required plants to install new technology to protect water supplies from contaminated coal ash.”    [6]

Admittedly I can’t help but believe that when a choice offers itself, we should opt to leaving the world a better place for our passage.  Whether it terms to improving the soil of our gardens we plant, the campsites we inhabit, or the wake left by our passage through life, I hope to leave it all better, cleaner, more right than wrong.  Thus, it seems like a no brainer that we continually strive to reduce the toxic pollutants we disperse.  

This worldview is apparently alien to Andrew Wheeler who was confirmed as “permanent administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency” early this year….. Wheeler, 54, a former energy lobbyist and Senate Republican staffer, has faithfully implemented President Trump’s deregulatory agenda since replacing former administrator Scott Pruitt in July. He was previously approved by the Senate last year to be the second-highest-ranking EPA official under Pruitt, who resigned last year amid a series of ethics allegations…… Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, was among the “yes” votes for Wheeler…. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a centrist, was the only Republican to oppose Wheeler, citing his inattention to addressing climate change while serving as acting administrator of the agency….”   [7]

What would a loon think of all this coal business?

“Bad, dirty water.

Must they still burn coal?

It makes fish taste bad.” 

By the way, if you might want to drop Senator Gardner a note, you can do so through this link.

https://www.gardner.senate.gov/contact-cory/email-cory

Citations:

1.  Schoch N, Yang Y, Yanai RD, et al. Spatial patterns and temporal trends in mercury concentrations in common loons (Gavia immer) from 1998 to 2016 in New York’s Adirondack Park: has this top predator benefitted from mercury emission controls? Ecotoxicology. 2019 Nov 6. 

 2. Scheuhammer AM, Lord SI, Wayland M, et al.  Major correlates of mercury in small fish and common loons (Gavia immer) across four large study areas in Canada. Environ Pollut. 2016 Mar;210:361-70. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2016.01.015. Epub 2016 Jan 22.

3.  Franceschini MD, Evers DC, Kenow KP, et al.  Mercury correlates with altered corticosterone but not testosterone or estradiol concentrations in common loons. Ecotoxicol Environ Saf. 2017 Aug;142:348-354. 

4.  Schoch N, Yang Y, Yanai RD, et al. Ecotoxicology. 2019 Nov 6. Spatial patterns and temporal trends in mercury concentrations in common loons (Gavia immer) from 1998 to 2016 in New York’s Adirondack Park: has this top predator benefitted from mercury emission controls?

5. Yang Y, Yanai RD, Schoch N, et al. Determining optimal sampling strategies for monitoring mercury and reproductive success in common loons in the Adirondacks of New York.

Ecotoxicology. 2019 Nov 6. 

6.  https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/20/us/epa-issues-new-rules-on-disposal-of-coal-ash.html?module=inline

7. https://www.coloradopolitics.com/news/former-coal-lobbyist-wheeler-confirmed-to-lead-epa-without-support/article_8a1808e2-3b9c-11e9-8a48-6f303bfe78e6.html