As part of an ongoing project, Erika Zambello is visiting all National Estuarine Research Reserves in the continental United States. Established by NOAA, the sites work together toward long-term research, education and coastal stewardship.
The Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) was designated in 1984 and encompasses 1,600 acres of coastal Maine. I had once visited the reserve on a birding trip and was happy to return in September 2016 for a full tour.
The Wells NERR campus is a mix of history and ecology. As I strode up to the main buildings, including an enormous barn, the pale yellow structures were shrouded in dense, coastal fog. I made my way up the path to a renovated farmhouse that housed the visitor center and staff offices, mentally crossing my fingers, hoping that the sky would soon clear for photographs.
The director of this reserve, Paul Dest, showed me around the grounds. Old bedrooms serve as offices and the communal area has a relaxed, familial vibe, even in the midst of busy preparations for their annual craft fair.
“What you see when you arrive here is this 19th century campus of buildings that was once a farm. And we’ve taken all of these buildings, beautiful farm buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places, and we’ve restored them and converted them to our 21st century use for science education and conservation. So, essentially, we breathe new life into old buildings to meet a science-based mission,” explains Dest.
The barn is now an event space, the horse stalls are used as storage for research equipment and kayaks, the creamery as a classroom laboratory. The reserve owns additional buildings — another house, chicken coops and more — that could be restored in the future if more space is needed.
As we walked and talked, Dest delved into the mission of the Wells Reserve. “We’re here for science, we’re here to convey science to people of all ages and we’re here to protect the natural resources.”
After the tour, I set out to explore some of the reserve’s seven-mile trail system, pleased that the sun was now shining.
Adjacent to the reserve’s campus lies a sloping field. The golden leaves of milkweed plants drew my eye, giving the viewshed, which stretches all the way to the blue silhouette of Mount Agamenticus, a yellow tinge. Even from the hill, where the ocean is not yet visible, I could smell the salt in the air and hear the crash of the waves.
The meadow is specifically managed for songbirds. From May through August, only the trails are mowed, thereby protecting the nests and young of birds breeding in the tall grass. It was on this very trail during my first visit that I saw my first bobolink, a black and yellow neotropical migrant that journeys thousands of miles north to raise chicks here.
Birds are not the only carefully monitored species here. Whenever the trails need mowing, a group of dedicated volunteers combs through the milkweed, removing any black, white and yellow monarch butterfly caterpillars and chrysalises they find and then transporting them to other plants outside the path of the mowing machine.
The trail dipped down the hill, through low patches of young trees perfect for common yellowthroat warblers and eastern towhees, to the flat expanse of Red Maple Marsh. Here the trees were larger, red maple and yellow birch leaves showing only the slightest hint of the autumn season to come. I followed the wooden boardwalk of the Laird-Norton Trail, where bright green, lush ferns form the majority of the understory. When I stopped on a bench to listen, northern cardinals calls mixed with the rustle of black-capped chickadees in the canopy.
The trail took me to a marsh lookout. The tide was ebbing low, leaving exposed, cracked mudflats in the sunshine. The remaining pools attracted a hunting great blue heron. Beyond the grasses, the pale beach sand and crashing surf met at the ocean.
I wasn’t the only one enjoying the trails. I passed birders, joggers and explorers, some navigating with maps and others who had obviously memorized the network of nature paths on the reserve long ago.
Reserve staff are true stewards of the property, taking the direct results of their research and using it to manage the trails and ecosystems I was now exploring. What they discover about invasive species, restoration, rare species and other important subjects can be applied not only to their property, but also to other managers of coastal environments. All projects also have links to everyday decisions made by regulators, policy makers, elected officials and the general public.
After a brief break for lunch, research assistant Michelle Furbeck picked me up in one of the reserve cars to head down to a handful of the reserve’s study sites.
First stop: Wells Harbor. In the summer, the docks would be teeming with locals and tourists fishing, swimming, kayaking and sightseeing. Now the area was nearly empty, with unmanned motor and sailboats gently bobbing in the current. On the lowest dock, Furbeck unpacked a long net, carefully submerging it into the cool, green water of the harbor. After an hour, she would pull it back up, collecting the detritus it had gathered for a long-term fish study.
Next up, Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge down the road. A series of yellow flags extended into the emerald and gold marsh grasses, marking a vegetation transect that is painstakingly sampled every few years to assess changes in the plant community. As we stood on a flattened section of vegetation, Furbeck went through the protocol of another long-term study, a meticulous count of wading birds that began in 1991.
As we walked, Furbeck exuded excitement about her job at the reserve as well as the experiments she participated in. She especially loved talking to the local people about the reserve’s research initiatives, including a woman who lived across from the flagged transect and two tourists taking pictures at the harbor. She is definitely an amazing science ambassador!
Into the Estuary
I arrived at the Wells Reserve early in the morning and ready to meet up with registered kayak guide and environmental educator Linda Littlefield Grenfell. The coastal fog had already burned off, leaving high sweeping clouds that allowed the sun to break through as we carried paddles across the reserve and down to the water.
Kayaks sat stacked in neat rows near the dock, light and easy to carry. Littlefield Grenfell calls the dock itself “the Cadillac;” unlike others, this dock includes a specialized kayak launch. I slid my kayak between two metals rungs on a portion of the board that angled slightly. My firm footing allowed me to easily and safely slip into my seat, and adjust my life jacket and paddle. Using my arms, I pushed against a metal bar and gently slid into the calm water of the marsh. It was my easiest kayak launch ever.
When I think back on our paddle, I remember the shorebirds most of all. Right as we started out, we paddled past a few spotted sandpipers dipping their tails as they looked for food in the soft earth. Farther up the river, greater yellowlegs and least sandpipers wound around each other as they foraged. Interestingly, as we approached from the water, the shorebirds seemed unperturbed by our presence, and I took photos from only a few feet away. At the end of our trip, a single semipalmated plover landed nearby. That’s four different shorebirds in one hour!
Though it was morning, there were plenty of noises about. The mud itself seemed to crackle — like it was talking, Littlefield Grenfell said. Blue jays called to each other from the forest canopy and leaves rustled in the breeze. I could even hear the gentle flow of water between the swish of our paddles. And of course there was the hollow bumping that came when I became too absorbed in photography and gently ran into my patient guide’s kayak.
I loved paddling with Littlefield Grenfell. Though she has kayaked this area hundreds of times, she rarely does so at low tide. Throughout our trip she marveled at all the new things she could see, looking up plant species and bird silhouettes in her guidebooks. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and I highly recommend signing up for expeditions with her.
From the dock, we returned to the campus, carefully replacing our life jackets and paddles in the barn’s storage area. I waved goodbye to Littlefield Grenfell and walked over to the classroom laboratory.
In addition to their many education programs, the reserve also hosts college classes taught by their researchers every semester. I slipped into the back of one such class with students from a local community college taking an introduction to marine biology. As they continue their classes every Friday, the reserve itself will be their living laboratory as they learn first-hand how the coastal ecosystems function.
As my time at the Wells Reserve drew to a close, I found myself already texting friends and family to tell them to visit the property as soon as they could. With all the events and the miles of trails, there is always something to see!
See more photos from the field at VoicesforBiodiversity.org!
Erika Zambello is a writer and photographer currently living on the Emerald Coast of Florida. She has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management from the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, where she specialized in Ecosystem Science and Conservation. She is also a National Geographic Young Explorer, completing four trips to the Maine North Woods in each of the four seasons, Fall 2015-Summer 2016.
In addition to acting as the sole blogger for the entire Florida State Park system, she is a regular contributor to the Duke Nicholas School, the Maine Sportsman, Bangor Daily News, and 10000 Birds. In the past she has written for The Conservation Fund, the Triangle Land Conservancy, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, BirdWatching Daily, and the Florida Sportsman. Finally, she is the founder and managing editor of the travel website One World, Two Feet, as well as the co-managing editor for the award-winning online magazine Voices for Biodiversity.
Follow her daily adventures on Instagram, or zambellophotography.com.