Walk with Naturalists – July 19, 2015

July 19, 2015.

Kennebunk Plains Wildlife Management Area.

Fifteen people gathered at the north parking lot of the Kennebunk Plains Wildlife Management Area to spend two hours exploring this unique ecological site. It was a warm, humid day (80° F) with a brilliant blue sky and white puffy clouds.

Prior to leaving the parking lot, there was a general discussion of the historical background of the Kennebunk Plains. The area was formed 14,000 years ago as the glaciers receded. The glacial melt water formed alluvial deposits of sand (90’ deep in the area of the Plains) and became what is now termed sandplain grasslands. It is the rarest natural community in New England.

The Kennebunk Plains Wildlife Management Area (KPWMA) is comprised of +/-1700 acres and is home to several unique and rare species: The Northern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor constructor) (see picture below), The Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) (see picture below) and Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda).

Black Racer

Grasshopper Sparrow

The KPWMA is also home to a rare plant: The Northern Blazing Star (Liatris borealis) (see picture below). There are estimated to be a million stems on the Plains. In fact, most of the Northern Blazing Star in the world is located here. The group observed only a few plants with open blooms as this was just the beginning of the blooming season.

Northern Blazing Star

The walk started down the road to the west of the parking and headed north toward the rear of the Plains. Along the road several plant species were identified: the shrub, Meadow Sweet (Spiraea latifolia), Blue Toadflax (Linaria canadensis) and Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium). While looking at the Spreading Dogbane plant, the group observed several Dogbane Beetles (Chrysochus auratus) (see picture below) which are brilliantly iridescent. The group examined and identified several examples of Whorled Loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia), a small yellow wildflower. Several examples of Tiger Lily (Lilium tigrinum) were seen. (see picture below)

Dogbane Beetle

Tiger Lily

In the midst of the sandplain grassland the group had a general discussion about grasses, rushes and sedges and how they are generally differentiated. The group also talked about the preponderance of Gray Birch (Betula populifolia) as a succession species in the grassland.

We also learned to differentiate the three primary types of pines in the southern part of Maine; Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus), Red Pine (Pinus resinosa) and Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida). They are most easily differentiated by the number of needles in each bundle of needles: Eastern White Pine (5), Red Pine (2) and Pitch Pine (3). The group also discussed the maintenance of the grasslands through periodic controlled fire burns.

The walk continued to the small spring-fed pond formed by Cold Brook which eventually empties into the Mousam River. The pond in prior times was used to irrigate the commercial blueberry operation on the Kennebunk Plains. Along the path to the pond were seen Bracken (fern) (Pteridium aquilinum), Speckled Alder (Alnus incana ssp. rugosa), Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), Common Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) and Bear Oak (Quercus ilicifolia). Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia serotina) were also seen and identified along the path.

Upon reaching the pond, the group learned about the origin of Cold Brook and the pond which was man-made using a large earthen dam. Native Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) live in the pond and were rising to the surface. Two young men were fishing and caught several small trout. They released the fish back into the pond.

On the way back to the parking lot, the group saw an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) and a Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio canadensis) landing on a few of the open Northern Blazing Star flowers that had opened their blooms.

Just a few of the highlights of the walk–an interesting day in a unique natural area!