Summer on the Winnicut
Late July on a cloudy day, the Winnicut River was quiet and cool. Peter Wellenberger, the Great Bay Waterkeeper for the Conservation Law Foundation, and I kayaked the short tidal stretch of the Winnicut from the bridge on Route 33 to the bay. We entered the river near the bridge and quickly noted a big mat of green algae. It is a sign of excess nitrogen in the water. A NH Department of Environmental Services water expert had pointed out the algae to us a week earlier. He said he thought the river might be low and warm making it easier for the algae to grow.
A little further downstream we passed a more encouraging sign. A rope was staked out from the river’s edge half way across the river. The rope held lines hanging in the water that were supporting maturing baby oysters, spats. My neighbor is participating in one of the Great Bay restoration projects by raising young oysters until they can survive in the bay. The tide was going out so we could float and watch the river. At one point I turned and headed upstream just to get a sense of the tide. We would have had a hot, difficult time of it if we had been heading up stream. That day the spartina marsh grass was bright green and lush. Peter was impressed by how healthy the marsh looked. He said the Winnicut is a great example of a saltmarsh and differs from several other rivers contributing to the bay which have steep or tree covered banks. Part of Peter’s responsibility as the Great Bay Waterkeeper is to monitor the rivers flowing into the Bay and note changes, both manmade and natural, to the water quality and the environment.
We paddled out onto the Bay to the west to look at the marsh by the Fish and Game reserve and we spotted two batches of phragmites, a tenacious invasive. There was a slight breeze on the bay, not enough to ruffle the waters, just enough to keep the bugs away, and not another soul was out there. We spotted an osprey and Great Blue herons on the river, and cormorants on the open water, but no fish or ducks.
A week later, I walked the riverside along the trails behind the Weeks house with a friend. We had a mission: to drag a large tarp out of the river that had been floating there for months. We felt like kids, getting completely wet and covered in mud to untangle the tarp and drag it up the bank. Our reward was catching sight of mud crabs and a river spider[i] in the tarp. We also saw another large mat of algae further down the river from the one noted above.
On our way home we decide to tackle a tire that was also stuck in the river. It was still low tide, but my friend went up to her knees in the water to pull it across the river. It was heavier than the tarp, and covered with sharp barnacles. We were dumping out the mud collected inside the tire when I jumped about three feet in the air as a small snake or eel[ii] zipped out of the tire between my legs and wiggled into the mud. We picked it up on a stick but it was covered with mud so we couldn’t identify it. Do snakes burrow in the mud? We only managed to drag the tire up the side of the bank, not all the way out. A task to finish soon.
Now it is the middle of August. The birds are starting to show themselves again after their molt. My husband saw the local kingfisher flying down the river, chuckling as it flew; the woodpeckers have started knocking on trees again; and, we saw a Chickadee for the first time in weeks. On a walk down to the Fish and Game refuge I saw four great white egrets, and later spotted one cautiously hunting on the bank of the river behind my house. Those were the first egrets I had seen all summer. The spartina is starting to turn yellow on the marsh and the fields next to the river are full of goldenrod and purple loosestrife (another beautiful invasive). Are these the first signs that summer will soon be over?
[i] WRWC note: spiders found in water are often called fishing spiders. The species Laura found is likely Dolomedes tenebrosus. Species in the genus Dolomedes are called fishing spiders because most live near water and have been reported to catch small fishes and aquatic insects from the water as they walk on the surface. The species Dolomedes tenebrosus is more frequently associated with wooded areas (it would be more accurately classified as a tree-dwelling spider) and is a common household invader in these locations. It occurs from New England and Canada south to Florida and Texas. Source: UNH and Penn State Cooperative Extensions
[ii] WRWC note: It was possibly an American eel that Laura and her friend found. While we do have water snakes—Northern Water snake and the Eastern Ribbon snake come to mind—they are associated with freshwater systems only. The section of the Winnicut River that Laura was on is tidally influenced, and thus consists of saltwater. American eels do live most of their lives in freshwater, but migrate to the Sargasso Sea to spawn each spring. This individual may have been a young eel finding its way upstream on the Winnicut, having journeyed from the ocean—something made possible from the removal of the dam in 2009!
Laura Byergo is a Greenland resident and volunteer for the WRWC. You may reach her through email@example.com.