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Harpswell Students get Muddy for Science

Published in the Midcoast Forecaster on June 8, 2016

By Walter Wuthmann

Harpswell Community School students play in the salt marsh off Long Reach Lane after capturing minnows for a citizen science project June 7. (Mary Ann Nahf photo)

Harpswell Community School students play in the salt marsh off Long Reach Lane after capturing minnows for a citizen science project June 7. (Mary Ann Nahf photo)

HARPSWELL — A dozen Harpswell Community School students went crashing through grass and water, unleashed by the end of the school day and a salt marsh.

It was a warm afternoon June 6, and the great blue heron the kids were trying to trap was definitely not going to show up while they were there.

The Harpswell third-, fourth- and fifth-graders are part of a statewide citizen science project organized by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

IF&W is planning to attach solar-powered GPS transmitters to five great blue herons around the state. The units will transmit data to a public database over a three-year period, helping the department learn more about the birds’ daily movements, habitats, colony fidelity, migration routes, and wintering locations, according to an IF&W press release.

The great blue heron is a species of “special concern” to the department because of the decline of nesting pairs on Maine’s coastal islands from the 1980s to 2007.

But to trap a heron, you need to know where it eats. It’s the students’ job to set the meal.

Come and get it

Salin Bachor, 9, holds a captured mummichog minnow at Long Reach in Harpswell June 7. The minnows are bait in a project to track great blue herons. (Walter Wuthmann photo)

Salin Bachor, 9, holds a captured mummichog minnow at Long Reach in Harpswell June 7. The minnows are bait in a project to track great blue herons. (Walter Wuthmann photo)

Julia McLeod, of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, broke the kids up into three groups, and headed out into the salt marsh on Long Reach Lane.

Salin Bachor, Berit Eidsness and Molly Greenleaf, all 9 years old, and Emma Fontaine, 8, followed McLeod out to a minnow trap. The girls opened it up and dumped its contents into a bucket.

As the finger-length fish flopped around in the plastic tub, Emma declared, “They look like salmon trying to go upstream.”

The girls identified the fish as mummichogs, a marsh fish that can grow up to 6 inches long. They would be good food for the coveted heron.

Once counted, the girls emptied the bucket of fish into a larger black bin floating in a tidal pool – a feeding trough for the birds.

But something had been forgotten: “Excuse me, I got a shrimp right in my hand,” Molly yelled as she brought the tiny crustacean from the trap to the bin.

Salin crouched over the bin for a moment, pondering the fate of the wriggling minnows. Then she shrugged and ran off.

The kids splashed in a saltwater pool, their feet sinking into the marsh mud. “My mom is going to flip out when she sees me,” one girl yelled over the chorus of voices.

Understanding and caring

Harpswell Community School students Salin Bachor, 9, and Molly Greenleaf, 9, empty a bucket of minnows into a tub they hope will attract a great blue heron. (Walter Wuthmann photo)

Harpswell Community School students Salin Bachor, 9, and Molly Greenleaf, 9, empty a bucket of minnows into a tub they hope will attract a great blue heron. (Walter Wuthmann photo)

McLeod said the heron project serves several purposes: It advances science, and “it gets kids connected to the place where they live.

“If you understand a place,” she added, “you’re more likely to care about it.”

McLeod has a game camera set up by the trap the girls just filled with fresh fish. If she notices a bird beginning to frequent the easy catch, she’ll call in IF&W to come trap it.

Then she and the Harpswell students can watch from their computers as their marsh’s bird begins to reveal the secrets of a threatened species.