The Sheepscot River

Wiscasset, Maine

The Sheepscot River is a 66 mile long river that originates in the little Maine town of Freedom.  It winds it's way through the countryside to Alna, where a set of tidal falls separate the upper section of the river from the lower, more navigable section.  When I say "more navigable", I'm talking about motor boats.  From the town landing in Wiscasset, you can head north upriver, under the railroad bridge (if the tide is right and your boat is small enough), and into a large shallow bay. The falls are at the head of this bay.  If you head south, you can continue down the Sheepscot, or bear right and follow the Back River down to where it meets the Sasanoa River.  From this intersection, you can head west towards Woolwich, Bath, and the Kennebec River.  Or east, where you can reconnect with the Sheepscot,  just south of Westport Island.  The Sheepscot continues south for another five miles or so, to the mouth, bordered to the west by Reid State Park, and to the east by Southport Island and the Cuckolds Light.

A Surf Scoter on takeoff.

A Surf Scoter on takeoff.

So there's the basic geography of the river.  Let's talk about wildlife.  It's not quite June yet, but I've been on the River three times so far.  And I've already noticed some changes in the wildlife since last year.  I have yet to see a Great Blue Heron.  Two years ago, there was a Great Blue Heron Rookery at the tops of a bunch of pine trees, which were growing on the top of a "clifflike" section of granite, about three miles south of Wiscasset.  They are all gone now, with only the remnants of some of the nests still visible.  And despite the rise in the local Eagle population, the two eagle nesting sites (that I know of) are both vacant.  One of the sites lost the tree that was holding the nest, which isn't surprising when you consider that some of the older nests can be 6-8 feet tall and weigh..., well..., a lot!  Usually, when I want to shoot eagles, I'll drag my boat over to the Kennebec River, where I know of several nest sites.  

Hendricks Head Light.  Southport, Maine

So what is in the Sheepscot?  Well, I saw several Loons, both mature and immature.  A small flock of Surf Scoters, with their cool orange bills.  Lots of Eider ducks, Seagulls, and other common water fowl.  The Osprey community seems very strong this year, with the exception of the pair I have followed for the last couple of years, who have nested on the same buoy in the middle of the river, just below Wiscasset.  Last year, I noticed that the female had a transmitter strapped to her body that had started to fall off.  Through a FB fan, I found the right people to contact about the loose transmitter.  It turns out that this particular couple migrates to Central America every year!  So maybe these two are just a little late in getting to their summer home.  I'll keep an eye out.  If you're boating, the Mason Station, just south of the Wiscasset Bridge is a good place to watch Ospreys as there are several nests on and around the old pier.  They also seem to like the flat tops of the navigational buoys that you see in the river, to build their nests on.  I can't wait for this years crop of chicks to be hatched.  If you time it just right, and are near one of the nests on top of certain buoys, the strong tide will push the buoy over enough so that you can get some good shots of the chicks in the nest.

Osprey

Osprey

What surprised me a little on this last trip were the sheer number of seals in the Sheepscot.  Cruising past one of their favorite ledges, I counted over 100 seals and pups!  And there are probably 10-20 ledges and islands in the lower Sheepscot that routinely hold pods of seals.  This time of year it is difficult to photograph these guys, except from a distance.  If you get too close, one seal bolts for the water, and then the rest quickly follow.  I think this happens for two reasons.  First, the Mommas retrying to teach the pups what to do when boats and people are around, because when the seals are days old, they have no idea.  A couple of years ago, I was accompanying a marine mammals expert on a baby seal recovery.  When we found the three day old seal pup, we waited for over an hour for Mom to return, or call for her pup, but Mom was nowhere to be found.  The expert told me to watch the pup and not let her go back into the surf (as she wouldn't survive alone), while she went after a dog crate for transport.  As I tried put some distance between myself and the pup in order to get some shots  (I had two cameras with me), she continued to follow me around, getting so close that I couldn't focus the camera.  I finally realized that I had been backing up towards an incoming tide when the remnants of a wave ran over my shoes.  Realizing that I had to pick up the seal before she tried to make her way back into the sea, I tried to get my cameras out of the way,  grabbed the young female in a towel, and scooped her up like you would a baby.  So there I am, covered in sand, with thousands of dollars of camera equipment hanging around my neck, and a baby seal in my arms staring up at me with absolutely no fear in those big eyes!  The expert arrived about 10 minutes later and we put "Clara" in the crate and made our way back to the truck.  Clara was cared for, rehabilitated and, eventually released back into the wild by the Marine Mammals program at UNE.  

Seals "hauled out" on a ledge in the Sheepscot River.

Seals "hauled out" on a ledge in the Sheepscot River.

The second reason the seals head into the water is because they are pretty skiddish this time of year.  The boat traffic is just starting up again, and it will be a couple of months before they become acclimated to humans for another summer.

If you are heading out on a boat to capture some wildlife shots, you'll need to bring the longest lens in your bag, as you'll almost never be able to get as close as you'd like.  Choose a fast shutter speed to compensate for any rocking or vibration in the boat, and take lots of pictures!

Common Loon.

Common Loon.

I will continue to shoot on the Sheepscot River, and I'll also explore the other local rivers, including the Kennebec, Damariscotta, and the New Meadows.  I remember a very active Great Blue Heron rookery on the New Meadows that you could only get to by boat at high tide.  Maybe that will be my next adventure...

Thanks for reading.

Dave