Nature Notes


In the wetland, the misty wetland, the heron hunts, day and night. Probably not as catchy as song lyrics as those about the mighty jungle and the sleeping lion, and the heron’s voice itself is anything but melodic, but a great blue heron standing stock still at the edge of a lake or pond completes a scene of quiet beauty. Maine is not a state with too many commonly seen heron species. The great blue heron, the largest and frequently the most typically spotted of all herons in many places, is a notable visitor to the watershed especially as the summer progresses and more shallow shoreline is revealed.

With a height of nearly four feet and, when flying, a wingspan of six feet, this is a large bird but often you have to really be looking carefully because its gray and white plumage can blend in well with the colors along the water’s edge. And of course, it rarely moves when it’s fishing, and then to rapidly strike at prey with its long, pointy bill. This weapons-grade appendage has been clocked at 90 miles per hour! In the air, it coils its long neck back toward its body but with legs and feet outstretched and slow, lumbering flight, it is readily distinguished between other large birds such as ospreys and eagles and also sandhill cranes which do live in parts of Maine.

On the lake, a hunting heron can be spotted on the bog side of aptly-named Bog Bridge, especially in late summer when they disperse from their breeding areas. You are not likely to hear its raspy croaking call which is typically heard more on their breeding grounds, a communal rookery on an island or other isolated watery environment. To hear recordings please go to What are they hunting? Almost anything, from frogs to fish, from snakes to small birds, from mice to mayflies. Larger fish can actually be impaled on the beak before being subdued by shaking and then swallowed.  Their exceptional eyesight permits hunting even in darkness, something that has been noted by

volunteers for the on-going initiative tracking individuals using transmitters. You can follow these Maine birds in their southward migration as well as see some great photos at this Facebook site

Usually not thought to be a bird species of concern, in Maine recently they are in the sights and talons – of bald eagles.  Especially at the breeding colonies, the appearance of an eagle can mean the end of the colony. The herons leave and in many cases do not come back. Eagles’ traditional food sources – fish, primarily ocean fish – are in decline, so the birds are feeding on

alternate prey.  Alas, great blue herons are on that growing list.

Keep your eye out for herons late into the fall when they still might haunt the quiet gray waters that are not ice-bound. Leaves may be down, emergent vegetation brown, and the wetland is otherwise in winter mode. It’s always nice to be reminded of our summer residents and look forward to returning green and blue seasons by the lake!

For more information:


Dolomedes probably means nothing to many people, myself included, and it has nothing to do with the very similar dolomades, a Greek stuffed grape leaf delicacy. Not even close. However, mention dock spider and, oh yes, that does come in loud and clear. Docky, as the spider of the year is inevitably named in our household – and invariably there is at least one that stakes out a territory on our dock – invokes fear and trepidation for almost anyone dangling legs in the water, gripping the swim ladder, or sitting in proximity to almost any nook or cranny around the edges of the dock. So here are some details that might help dissipate the fear if not the loathing.

Dolomedes is the genus name for this large spider that frequents docks, often seen with outstretched legs which make it seem even bigger than it is (and that is pretty darn big -up to 3 inches or so including appendages). Also known as fishing spiders, they do not spin traditional webs but rather detect surface disturbances on the water and make speedy forays to grab prey nearby. Some spiders are large enough and presumably speedy enough to trap small fish but insects, not dangling feet, are the usual food items, thankfully. They do inject venom to subdue the prey which is grabbed at first by claw-like structures on the spider’s legs. Fascinatingly, they also can dive beneath the surface and, surrounded by a layer of air, can even breathe while underwater. Their hairs repel water so they remain dry, and because of this air dry-suit, are very buoyant so they pop to the surface if they don’t find something to hold onto while submerged. Most of their hunting is done at night and the ability to sense vibrations outweighs any visible means of finding their dinner. You would think that with 8 eyes, 4 in each of two rows, their sight would be a primary hunting tool but not so. These vibration detectors also function as an early warning system for any predator such as a fish that might enjoy a spider meal! Are you less scared yet?

If not, here is more to add to the notion that knowledge is a great antidote to fear. There are nine species in North America. In Maine, two species can lurk, if you must, or at least set up shop on a waterside structure – Dolomedes tenebrosus, the dark fishing spider, which also can be found away from water, and D. triton, the six spotted fishing spider. Next time you see one, get a grip and try to see the spots. Actually, D. triton seems to have lines along its sides whereas D. tenebrosus is just simply dark. This later species exhibits a rather large discrepancy between the size of the female and the male, which is less than 1/2 the size of the female. Alas, males do not survive mating although it’s not from being eaten. Deemed ‘self-sacrifice’ in one on-line article, no other details were revealed.

Often in close proximity to the large female dock spider will be a web nest with tiny spiderlets, hundreds are them, (actually an egg sac can hold about 1,000, another amazing fact) that twitch in unison when the webbing is disturbed. Another common name for this group of spiders is the nursery web spider, a reference to this behavior. The female, exhibiting true maternal behavior, guards them after she attaches the hatchlings in their web to usually something inconvenient (for us) like the arm of a chair, the rope that wraps around a dock cleat or even the steering wheel of a boat. It is unclear to me what happens to all the baby spiders but they seem to decrease in number over time, maybe eaten by other predators or even each other? Survivors hibernate as immature adults in protected spots such as beneath rocks or behind bark of tree. In the spring, after a final molt, they mate and females carry their egg mass around until the spiderlings hatch. Tiny, they are cute; really they are!

Mama spider tending her eggs

Supposedly the venom of these spiders is not particularly strong or dangerous. We as a species seem hypersensitive to the idea of spiders but they are extremely important in the balance of nature, in their role as predator. Try to just let them alone, let the nests persist. They are interesting to watch, add to all the wonders we call life and probably very few survive. Otherwise, well, let’s just say that we would be even more likely to post a sign on the ramp to the dock that reads “Beware of Spiders.”


  • Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity by Stephen A. Marshall
  • Dolomedes, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,
  • Genus Dolomedes – Fishing Spiders,
  • Maine spiders –
  • Canada’s Largest Spider – largest-spider-sittin-on-the-dock-of-the-bay/


Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning- by Mario Vittone

The new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim and headed straight for a couple who were swimming between their anchored sportfish and the beach. “I think he thinks you’re drowning,” the husband said to his wife. They had been splashing each other, and she had screamed, but now they were just standing neck-deep on a sandbar. “We’re fine, what is he doing?” she asked, a little annoyed. “We’re fine!” the husband yelled, waving him off, but his captain kept swimming hard toward him. “Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not 10 feet away, their nine-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears and screamed, “Daddy!”

How did this captain know — from 50 feet away — what the father couldn’t recognize from just 10? Drowning is not the violent, splashing call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, learned what drowning looks like by watching television.

If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that’s all of us), then you should make sure that you and your crew know what to look for when people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, “Daddy,” the owner’s daughter hadn’t made a sound. As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, I wasn’t surprised at all by this story. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for is rarely seen in real life.


The Instinctive Drowning Response, so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect it to. When someone is drowning there is very little splashing, and no waving or yelling or calling for help of any kind. To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic drowning can be, consider this: It is the number two cause of accidental death in children age 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents). Of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. In 10 percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening.

Drowning does not look like drowning. Dr. Pia, in an article he wrote for the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine, described the instinctive drowning response like this:

  • Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is a secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.
  • Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  • Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  • Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  • From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response, people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs. (Source: On Scene magazine: Fall 2006 page 14)

This doesn’t mean that a person who is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in real trouble — they are experiencing aquatic distress. Not always present before the instinctive drowning response, aquatic distress doesn’t last long, but unlike true drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue. They can grab lifelines, reach for throw rings, etc.

Look for these other signs of drowning when persons are in the water:

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Not using legs
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over onto the back
  • Appears to be climbing an invisible ladder

So, if a crewmember falls overboard and everything looks okay, don’t be too sure. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look as if they’re drowning. They may just look as if they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure? Ask them, “Are you alright?” If they can answer at all, they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them. And parents — children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you need to get to them and find out why.

Reach, Throw, Row, Don’t Go (Unless You Are Trained): Maybe, Maybe Not

“A person who is drowning will climb on top of you and drown you if you get near them,” says someone every time the issue of rescuing a drowning person is brought up. Yeah – sort of, but not really.

It has happened, and though I’m not discounting the danger of an untrained person performing a rescue, treating every non-lifeguard in the world as someone who will die if he tries to rescue a four-year-old is absurd.

People in aquatic distress or people who are actively drowning are both looking for the same thing — what I call free freeboard. They want their mouths above the water without effort. They want to be standing up or supported by some kind of flotation. Once they feel supported, they no longer pose any danger if you can keep them feeling that way. What lifeguards are trained to do is to enter the water and support drowning victims so that they can easily breathe and are strong enough to get them to safety.

Reaching for someone who is drowning from a secure position is better than throwing something at him. And throwing him flotation is better than wasting time getting to him by boat. But here is the hard truth: if reaching, throwing, or rowing isn’t an option and someone doesn’t go get him, he is going to drown. If you call 911 (or Mayday) and do nothing else, you are calling for a body recovery. And since most of you are not going to be able to stand there and do nothing, here is how you can safely “go” — yes, even though you are untrained: bring flotation with you.

I’ve seen a patron at a public pool jump into the deep end with the cushion of a chaise lounge and make a save. The cushion had about 40 pounds of buoyancy (a standard life jacket has 17) and it kept both of them above the water until the guard could get there (he was texting and didn’t see anything). In New Smyrna Beach, Florida, a mother saved her son by swimming out with a cooler and putting it between her and the boy. They both kicked their way back to the sandbar that he had stepped off of and they walked out of the water.

If there is no one else around and you are not a lifeguard, but you have a lifejacket on and can grab another, you have enough flotation to give both you and a victim freeboard to breathe and stop the drowning. So long as you are a good swimmer and are in decent shape, you can go help.

There are far too many “what ifs” to tell you how to handle every possible drowning scenario, but you should not feel completely helpless just because you are not a rescue professional. Yes — there is danger in attempting a rescue (for the trained and untrained alike) but standing on the beach or boat or pool edge during a drowning and hoping someone else gets there in time just isn’t a strategy.


Keep our waters clean
Treat your septic system with care

Out of sight, out of mind. That’s what many people think after the toilet flushes and the sink drains. But that wastewater may be seen again if the household’s septic system fails. Some very simple measures can prevent septic system failure and protect Maine’s lakes, streams and groundwater from pollution.

Most Septic systems, even with maintenance, will work effectively only for an average of 15-25 years.

Septic System Care (PDF)

  • A “starter” is not needed for bacterial action to begin in a septic tank. In fact, additives can sometimes do harm.
    Send all sewage into the septic tank. Don’t run laundry waste directly into the drain field as soap or detergent scum will plug the soil pores.
  • Normal amounts of household detergents, bleaches, or other household chemicals can be used and won’t stop the bacterial action. Do not use excessive amounts.
  • Never dump cleaning water for latex paint brushes or cans into the sewer.
  • Never deposit coffee grounds, cooking fats, wet-strength towels, disposable diapers, facial tissues, feminine napkins, cigarette butts and other non-decomposable materials into the sewer. These materials will not decompose and will fill the septic system and could cause a failure. Make sure to tell your house guests or renters of these limitations.
  • Do not dump grease down the drain. Throw it out with the garbage.
  • If you have a septic system, it is not recommended that you use a garbage disposal. If you believe you must use one, you will likely need to have your septic tank pumped more frequently. Even with this, garbage disposals can still damage and shorten the life of a system
  • If you use a water softener, call your professional septic system company for a brochure on use of such systems.
  • Use a good quality toilet tissue that breaks up easily when wet. Put a hand full of toilet tissue in a fruit jar half full of water. Shake the jar and if the tissue breaks up easily, the product is suitable for the septic tank. High wet-strength tissues are not suitable.

Cleaning Your Septic Tank

  • Pump your tank every 2-3 years for year-round residences and every 3-5 years for seasonal residences. Keep a written record.
  • Summer/Seasonal usage – depends on how many people are using the residence. Even if you use your system briefly each year, it needs regular maintenance. However, excessive discharge on a daily basis into a septic system which is in excess of the systems ability to absorb the discharge can cause a system to fail even if you are there only during the summer. See “Tank Capacity” below.
  • Get the tank pumped at the beginning of the season. The point is that if you get it pumped at the end of the season and are not using it year round, there may not be enough water / sewage in the system when you leave and the water could freeze causing system damage.
  • Keep vegetation cut down over top of the septic system/leach field. Vegetation, such as small trees and shrubs, can have deep root systems that can get into your septic drainage system and cause a septic field failure. A good septic field needs sunlight.
  • Older septic systems will fail (pipe and stone systems). If you believe that your system is not performing the way it should or you have a septic smell, call a professional septic system company. They can dig test pits over the leach field to check if the system is working properly.

Tank Capacity

Each septic system has a certain capacity. The leach field can only absorb a determined amount of liquid each day. Excessive discharge into the tank can cause the system to fail. Things that can be done to limit discharge are:

  • Low flow shower heads – highly recommended.
  • Fix leaking faucets and checking toilets for float valves that are leaking. A cup of water leaking out of a toilet can add up to 90 gallons a day!
  • A water meter can cost $50 to $100 plus installation. You can then determine how many gallons are going in to your system each day.
  • New front load washing machines use a fraction of water compared to an old top loader.
  • Spread out how often you do laundry. Do smaller loads several times a week rather than many loads on one day.
  • Large number of house guest or renters can over stress a system. Advise your guests that you are on a septic system. Ask for their cooperation in limiting their shower time or frequency of showers, running dishwashers only when they are full, not letting water run continually in the sink when doing dishes and other common sense water limiting ideas.
  • Toilets – The largest discharge into the septic system usually comes from toilets (40%).
  • The most effective way to reduce the sewage flow from a house is to reduce the toilet wastes. Some older toilets use 5 to 6 gallons per flush. Some “low flow” toilets use only 3.5 gallons per flush or less. However, low flow toilets many times take two flushes to get the sewage down. That’s 7 gallons. Toilets are now available which have been redesigned and will do a good job with one gallon or less per flush. This can reduce sewage flows from a home by one third. Ask an expert.
  • Many Mainers are well aware of the old adage “If its yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down”. It is not very logical to use 3 to 5 gallons of water to flush down less than a pint of urine.

Following a few simple rules, like not using too much water and not depositing materials in the septic tank that bacteria can’t decompose, should help to make a septic system trouble-free for many years. But don’t forget, the septic system does need to be cleaned out when too many solids have built up. Septic systems need tender loving care too.

Browntail Moth Info

Primer on Browntail Moth

Of a million species of insects so far identified only about one percent are occasionally pests for humans, and only one thousand species considered seriously damaging. But when one species arrives uninvited and starts to impact summertime enjoyment, all that is irrelevant. The innocent sounding browntail moth is such an insect. Found last summer on quite a few properties in the watershed, the caterpillar form of the insect is causing problems and not just because they can defoliate trees in yards and forests alike. The caterpillars could be called armed and dangerous because they are covered with irritating and toxic hairs that break off and persist even after the caterpillars are gone. Depending on a person’s sensitivity to exposure to the hairs, and to the numbers of insects present, they can cause a rash similar to poison ivy and even respiratory problems due to inhalation.

This insect is native to Europe and other places but was accidentally introduced to Massachusetts in 1897. For a history of the Browntail Moth in New England go here. Recently it has once again expanded its territory away from coastal areas in southern Maine (where they have been found historically for years as well as on Cape Cod). Much of Knox, Lincoln and Waldo counties have infestations in places. Removing winter nests where they can be reached is the place to start because each web can hold up to 400 caterpillars!

The most important thing right now is to read about these pests and to be aware so that you can learn to recognize them and how to do an inspection of your property before spring. The best resource is from the Maine Department of Ag, Conservation and Forestry. If you read nothing else, read this:

At this time of year, the caterpillars that hatched last fall are overwintering in nests found at the tips of tree branches. It seems unfair but many of the trees and shrubs we favor in our area are the very trees that they choose to eat, a feast seemingly specifically chosen for this pest (or vice versa): oak, apple, crabapple, shadbush, rose, including rugosa rose. But as soon as the tree starts to leaf out, the caterpillars emerge and start eating, returning to their nests at night. They are tiny in the early spring and it takes a magnifying glass to see they have two rows of white dots along their sides and two bright red dots on their back. Once they reach a certain size, these identifying are more easily seen as they go on the march, looking for new food sources that permit them to grow to about 1 1/2 inches in length. Their foliage eating habit that can weaken ornamental trees and shrubs, but also on taller forest trees, as distressing as it is, is not the most concerning problem.

Many people develop skin rashes similar to poison ivy to exposure to the hairs of the caterpillars. Depending on the individual’s sensitivity, the rash can be severe and some people can develop breathing issues due to inhaling the hairs. Besides breaking off, the hairs are shed by the caterpillars as they form their cocoons before coming adult moths and also are found later in the season, in July, as covers for the female moth’s egg masses and in the web nests of the caterpillars. And the hairs not only are found everywhere where the caterpillars are found – on the ground, in the lawn, on outdoor furniture, in the air on windy days – but can persist up to three years. Activities such as raking leaves, mowing the lawn, other gardening activities stir up the hairs and perpetuate the problem even though it is worst in the summer months.

What can be done? Right now, the number one top suggestion is to check your property for the winter nests.  Some pictures of infestations from around the watershed are here.  They are noticeable and their placement at the tips of tree branches is practically diagnostic. On ornamental trees or shorter forest trees, these nests can and should be cut down and immediately soaked in soapy water before disposal. Wearing gloves is mandatory. Here is a short video on to prune and dispose of the nests:

Physical removal of nests in taller trees is harder. Licensed arborists can climb trees or use bucket trucks to get at nests at the tops of tall trees.  Obviously this method is labor intensive, it may be feasible for a few trees but a major infestation on a number of properties may be problematic.  A list of some arborists in the area that are willing to remove nests is found here.  The time to do this is in March and April, before the leaves come out.

Chemical pesticide control of the growing caterpillars in the watershed areas are limited to few products that need to be applied by licensed and experienced arborists.  There are also no spray setbacks close to the shores of our lakes, ponds, and streams.  Unfortunately spraying can also affect non-target and possibly beneficial insects. Injecting trees with systemic insecticides can avoid issues of drifting spray but may also kill the important caterpillars and other insects that are necessary bird food for all the garden and forest birds such as chickadees, woodpeckers, warblers and for their offspring. Birds do not eat the browntail caterpillars because they too don’t like the hairs. The adult moths are strongly attracted to light which may eventually lead to a control method as may parasitic wasps or flies. Licensed pesticide applicators can be found here.

The nests are not large, and removing as many as possible before the caterpillars start emerging is the most effective control for home owners right now. Every nest taken down foils the potential for between 25 and 400 inch and half leaf-eating machines lining the branches of trees and blanketing the surface of any structure as they do before they form cocoons, both horrifying sights, believe me. Ten little nests, 4,000 possible caterpillars! You will be glad you did.

HISTORY of the Megunticook Watershed Association 

On September 23, 1969, after filing papers with the Knox County Registry of Deeds, the Megunticook Lake Association became a legal entity. This was after an organizational meeting on August 27, 1969 that was held at the Legion Hall in Camden.

The official filing with the Maine Secretary of State gave the following as the purposes of this new Association: “The purposes of said corporation are scientific, educational and agricultural, and to improve and preserve the environment and the quality of Megunticook Lake and Norton Pond in Knox County and Waldo County in the State of Maine, and to conserve the natural resources in the watershed of said Norton Pond and Megunticook Lake so that such natural resources may be devoted to the scientific and social use of the residents of said watershed; to test the waters of said Pond and Lake, to discourage pollution thereof, to disseminate information about safety in boating and other water sports and to circulate printed information about the laws of Maine concerning sanitation and safety. To acquire and hold real estate for the purpose of preserving same in its natural state, maintaining the same for nature study.”

The original trustees/directors signing the state certificate were: A. H. Chatfield, Jr., E. Clifford Ladd, Carlton F. Dougherty, Bernard Frankel, A. Margaret Bok, Lester Meyerhoff, Charles W. Chatfield, Arthur E. Spellissy and Stillman F. Kelley. Carlton Dougherty remains on the Board of Directors today, dedicating more than 40 years to the watershed

MWA has been testing water clarity in Megunticook Lake and Norton Pond since 1975 for the Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program.

Les Fleck resigned as Lake Warden in 1984 after 10 years of service.

Ken Bailey hired as part-time Lake Warden in the fall of 1984.

A few years after forming as the Megunticook Lake Association, the organization changed its name in 1985 to the Megunticook Watershed Association realizing that along with Megunticook Lake, the Megunticook River, Norton Pond, Moody Pond and the entire 32-square-mile watershed were of equal importance and should be included in all activities.

The Megunticook Watershed Association purchased (1984-85) the two outlet dams at the lake and donated them, plus a $20,000 endowment fund, to the Town of Camden.

Watercraft inspections for milfoil and other invasive aquatic plants have been conducted since 2001. In recent years, over 1,000 watercraft have been inspected annually.

In conjunction with Camden Partners in Monitoring, water tests for bacteria have been conducted at multiple locations on the lake, pond and river for over 11 years.

Ken Bailey was hired as full-time Executive Director/Lake Warden April 4, 2004 after many years in a part-time position with MWA..

A Nonpoint Source Pollution Survey was conducted from 2005-2006.

The membership was surveyed in the spring of 2010 in an effort to assist the MWA Board of Directors plan for the long-range future of the Association.

MWA ended is 2010-2011 fiscal years with 317 members.

Megunticook Watershed Assocation

We count on the support of our members to continue our work. If you enjoy the Megunticook Watershed please consider becoming a member. Thank you.

© 2017 Megunticook Watershed Association