Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Queset Brook, North Easton, Massachusetts

This is a movie I made on Thanksgiving Day, 2003, where Queset Brook starts at Lincoln Spring, off Lincoln Street in North Easton behind the Town Pool, and at Flyaway Pond, which has now fully reverted to a natural wild cranberry meadow after the dam there burst in 1968. My brother Tim Watts is the person in the footage. I don't know who wrote "eat me" in the bark of the beech tree.

A discussion of what needs to be done to restore Queset Brook to its healthy condition as a native brook trout stream is here.

The music is "Hani" by Ali Farka Toure from his record "Radio Mali."

This little movie was shot because Tim and I wanted to capture how clear and pure the water is at Queset when it begins as bunch of inchoate and scattered seeps next to Lincoln Street and quickly gathers into a recognizable, permanent brook. A second purpose was to figure out if these tiny brooklets were permanent or if they dried up in the summer. Timmy's find of caddis fly, crane fly and dobson fly larvae (hellgrammites) even in the smallest, uppermost parts of the brooklets told us that they don't dry up, since hellgrammites stay as larvae (nymphs) for several years before they hatch out, meaning the brook where they live has to stay wetted all year.

Queset Brook is at the very top of the Cohtuhticut (Taunton) River drainage, the largest river drainage wholly in Massachusetts. Because the Taunton itself is severely polluted by illegal and poorly regulated public wastewater treatment plants, most notably in Brockton and Taunton, and is too filthy to swim in, we wanted to show how clean the water is which feeds the Taunton, and to document (by ocular evidence, as our dad would say), that it is us alone who take this beautifully clean and pure water and in the span of just a dozen miles turn it into a turgid, foul-smelling broth of human waste. I think our dad had Queset in mind when he wrote the following poem in 1995:

Running Water
By Allan Watts

I saw a little brook
trickling through the woods
Its path was blocked with leaves,
that fell from a nearby tree.
I took a stick and broke the dam
and the water shone up at me,
and said, that is I think it said,
"Thanks for setting me free."

From Silly Verse by Allan Watts.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Leaping Atlantic Sturgeon - Kennebec River, Augusta, Maine

These are leaping adult Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus) in the Kennebec River at its head of tide in downtown Augusta, Maine. These animals are nearly extinct because of dam building and water pollution. Nobody knows why they jump.

Presumpscot Falls Blueback Herring and American Shad, Portland, Maine.

This is the second in a two-film series by Douglas Watts providing the first underwater videos of the native migratory fish of the Presumpscot River, Maine. Part one is here. This project is funded by members of Friends of Sebago Lake.

The focus of this second film is Presumpscot Falls, at the river's head of tide in Falmouth and Portland, Maine, and the spring return of native blueback herring and American shad to spawn in the river above the falls. The opening segments show the natural environs just above the falls, including a small spring brook and the wide variety of native wildflowers which dot the mature forest in the valley of the river. The falls is approached from the upstream side as if you were an unlucky canoeist caught in the torrent. Queequeg T. Dog, Ph.D. provides size perspective and aesthetic counsel.

A blueback herring and shad's eye view of Presumpscot Falls.

At the time of filming, in early June, the blueback herring and American shad runs were nearing their peak and the fish congregated at the deep plunge pool at the base of the falls by the thousands as they struggled to swim through the heavy water to their upstream spawning grounds.

The underwater filming was done with a small waterproof video camera attached to a long, metal broom handle with multiple hand straps and duct tape. The camera position was obtained by swimming out to a large mid-river rock, and repeatedly plunging the camera and broom stick deep into the water when a school of fish appeared close by. Because the current is so strong at the base of the falls, it was nearly impossible to keep the camera steady for more than a few seconds. Also, because the fish were quickly spooked by a long broomstick waving in their midst, each filming attempt was limited to a couple quick plunges before the herring and shad dispersed. Then it was a matter of waiting for them to regather and hoping the sun did not duck behind any clouds. It took two afternoons of filming to get the underwater footage here.
Blueback herring leaping the rapids at Ticonic Falls, Kennebec River, Waterville, Maine. Photograph by Tim Watts.
River bottom view of blueback herring getting ready to tackle the ledge drops at Ticonic Falls, Kennebec River, Waterville, Maine. Photograph by Tim Watts.

The dominant species in the footage is the blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis). Bluebacks are closely related to the alewife, which is also native to the Presumpscot, but alewives migrate upstream several weeks earlier in the spring than bluebacks. Like alewives, bluebacks are born in freshwater but live in the ocean. After one summer in freshwater as babies, they migrate to the ocean and live and grow for 3-4 years before returning to their home river to spawn. Unlike alewives, which spawn in freshwater ponds, blueback herring spawn in the river itself. Blueback herring are slightly smaller than alewives, with an average length of about 9-10 inches. Blueback herring are an important food source for fish-eating birds such as great blue heron, osprey and cormorants as well as striped bass. They are an essential food source for osprey nestlings. During the peak of the blueback run, the rapids and bedrock gorge of Presumpscot Falls are a circus of bird and fish life as osprey wheel about diving for herring, great blue heron spear them from streamside rocks and large striped bass attack them from below.

This still image from Presumpscot Falls shows the size difference between American shad and blueback herring. The American shad is the very large fish in the top of the image. It is probably 24-26 inches. The 9-10 inch blueback herring are directly below. A second, smaller shad is visible at right in the background.

The June 2009 filming revealed a much larger population of American shad in the Presumpscot than previously thought. American shad (Alosa sapidissima) are closely related to alewives and bluebacks but can reach nearly 30 inches long and 10 pounds, with an average size of about 24 inches and 3-5 pounds. Shad migrate upriver in June and spawn in deep holes in the river in July. The young migrate to sea in the fall at a length of 3-4 inches. Unlike their smaller cousins, shad spend 5 to 6 years in the ocean before returning to their river of birth to spawn.

During the two afternoons of filming in early June, schools of 30 or more large shad could be sometimes seen rushing to the surface in the center of the channel, always surrounded by much larger groups of blueback herring. Shad are extremely wary and prefer deep water away from shore. They only rose close to the surface when preparing to mount their attack on the nearly vertical drop of the falls. But during these brief, but repeated observation windows, it was obvious that the total number of shad present at the base of the falls was in the hundreds. Filming the shad was very difficult because they tended to stay out of underwater camera range and the camera's view was usually blocked by the bodies of blueback herring. Despite the excellent clarity of the Presumpscot during filming (it hadn't rained for a week), the natural light dispersal of the river water and the turbulence and bubbles of the plunge pool required the fish to be within a couple feet of the camera to be visible.

This little movie and its cousin are but weak tea compared to going to Presumpscot Falls yourself.

Music Credits:

"Monk's Apple": Patrick Malia, solo piano. Written by Patrick Malia.
"Tispaquin's Revenge": Jason Rowland, drums. Ted St. Pierre, bass. Patrick Malia, guitar solo. Douglas Watts, keyboards, guitar, percussion. Written by Douglas Watts.
"Rose Reprise": Conni St. Pierre, keyboards and flutes. Written by Conni St. Pierre.
All selections recorded at the Outlook, Bethel, Maine, engineered by Ted St. Pierre.

Squalid Tenement -- A Movie by Doug Watts

This is the first movie I ever made, but due to file size limitations at youtube it always looked like pixellated crap. Youtube has now upped their file size limit to 2 gigabytes instead of 100 megabytes so this now looks the way it should. It features William the Cat and Pushy the Cat, my dirty socks, a one legged pigeon and Roger Madden. Pushy and Roger are both now deceased. William is now svelte and quite healthy and happy. The music was recorded (and overdubbed) onto a pocket cassette recorder in my apartment at Squalid Tenement when I got home from work. Whoever developed the condenser mics in early 1970s General Electric pocket cassette recorders should get some type of prize.

Presumpscot River Alewives

This is an underwater video I made in June 2009 showing native alewives returning to their spawning pond, Duck Pond, also known as Highland Lake, in Westbrook, Maine. It is a tributary of the Presumpscot River via Mill Brook.

Unlike resident freshwater fish, alewives spend most of their lives in the Atlantic Ocean but are born in freshwater ponds. At the age of 3-4 they return to freshwater, to the same pond where they were born, to spawn. The babies spend the summer in the pond growing to a length of 4-5 inches and then migrate to the ocean in the fall. Unlike other migratory fish such as Pacific salmon and sea lamprey, alewives do not die after spawning and often make several return trips from the ocean to spawn during their lifetime. They reach a maximum length of 14 inches.

Prior to the mid 1800s nearly every coastal river and stream in New England supported multiple runs of alewives, one run to each lake and pond in the drainage, except where blocked by natural falls. Dam building on rivers and streams wiped out most of New England's alewife runs by the early 1900s. By the 1970s only a handful of alewife runs were left.

The Highland Lake alewife run was wiped out in the 1730s when a dam was built at Presumpscot Falls, at the river's head of tide, sparking a war with local Indians. Repeated orders by the Massachusetts Legislature in the 1700s to provide fish passage at Presumpscot Falls were ignored by the dam owners. The alewife run was restored in the 1980s when fishways were built at the pond's small outlet dam and at the Smelt Hill Dam at Presumpscot Falls. After being wrecked by a severe flood in 1996, the Smelt Hill Dam was completely removed in 2002 by cooperative agreement with the dam owner, Central Maine Power, and state and federal fisheries agencies and the non-profit Coastal Conservation Association. Here's the full story.

This movie features music by Maine artist Conni St. Pierre of Bethel, Maine and recorded at the Outlook studio in Bethel. This is quite fitting because the headwater of the Presumpscot River drainage is Songo Pond in Bethel. Funding for the filming and production was provided by Friends of Sebago Lake.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Driftwood -- A goofy song by Doug Watts.

I have no clue what made me write this song. I think a book about New England pirates in the 1700s my brother lent me. [1]

The music is from my $80 radio shack keyboard on the "habanera" drum setting. I made up lyrics into the little mic built into the computer.

[1] Dow, G. and J.H. Edmonds. 1923. The Pirates of the New England Coast, 1630-1730. Marine Research Society, Salem, Massachusetts. Republished by Dover Publications. 1996. Mineola, New York.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Finding Boris the Snapping Turtle

In 1995, my friend Jerry Trevino rescued a baby snapping turtle from being run over by a car and kept it in his apartment for eight years in a small kiddy swimming pool in the living room. Boris was his name and he was very intelligent. He knew his name and would sometimes come out into the kitchen and clomp around and visit with people.

In spring 2003 Jerry decided to release Boris because Boris was getting too big to stay in a 1 bedroom apartment and it just seemed the right thing to do. So Jerry released him into Bond Brook, behind our apartment building. Just a few hundred yards downstream, Bond Brook enters the Kennebec River. I told Jerry it would be a good release site because there was plenty of food and habitat and the banks of the brook and the river are very steep, which prevents the snappers from crossing any roads and getting run over by cars, which is probably the largest cause of death of adult snapping turtles.

When Jerry released Boris into Bond Brook it was in late April, just as the suckers were spawning in the brook. A couple days later I saw a 3 pound sucker bitten in half in the brook behind our apartment building. I reported to Jerry it appeared Boris had quickly figured out how to feed himself. Then for awhile there were no more sightings.

About six weeks later, while I was filming Atlantic sturgeon in the Kennebec River, Boris popped up under the bridge where I was sitting. I knew this snapper was Boris because he was the exact same size, his shell had only a small growth of algae on it, he looked up at me when I said his name, snapping turtles don't usually do that, snapping turtles are not commonly seen in the Kennebec, when you do see them they don't look up at you when you talk to them, and the place where I saw Boris was just across the river from the mouth of Bond Brook where Jerry had let him go. So the probability that it was Boris are much higher than not.

The moment that Boris took off was when I got up and moved toward him. Up until that point I had just been sitting on a rock under the bridge talking to him. I was glad that he did that, since it showed he had quickly re-learned his normal instinct to stay away from people. While people like Jerry and I think of snappers as very kool animals, a lot of people think of them as dangerous, ugly or only useful to run over with large automobiles and then laugh about it. This is one of the risks when you bring a wild animal into captivity and it becomes accustomed to friendly humans and then you release it into a world filled with humans who aren't so respectful of other life. In Rumford, Maine these people are called a "carcass patrol."

If (hopefully) Boris is still tooling around in the Kennebec, he is now 15 years old and much bigger. Unless run over by cars, snapping turtles can live for 50 or more years. Here's a picture of an older female snapper, from Mill Brook on the Presumpscot River in Westbrook. She was getting ready to lay her eggs when I bumped into her:

The music is some weird thing I made up at about 3 a.m. with a casio keyboard and my friend Kenny's alesis drum machine. The goofy howling sound at the beginning is a giant crane and electromagnet at O'Connor's scrap yard up the river, echoing off the river bank.

Fisher Brook, Augusta Maine -- A Natural Treasure

This is a movie I made of Fisher Brook in Augusta, Maine in August 2003. With a baby mink and several sand pipers.

Fisher Brook is a tiny seepage fed brook that goes into the Kennebec River about one mile upstream of Augusta. It is hidden in a very deep valley and takes quite a hike to see it. The section which I filmed is where the brook takes a sharp and deep drop off the peneplain and plunges down to the Kennebec.

In 2002, I helped save Fisher Brook from becoming the roadbed of a giant bridge and interstate highway interchange that was slated to be built right on top of it.

It's odd that someone as anonymous and powerless as me can have that power. But then again, it's odd that people no different than me can decide places like Fisher Brook should be buried and destroyed forever under millions of tons of concrete, asphalt and rubble. That was the plan for Fisher Brook in 2002. Nobody even knew it existed. But I did. And so I spoke up and said no.

At Fisher Brook, the good folks won. Fisher Brook won. The baby minks won. The sand pipers won. The water striders won. Our kids won.