Species of Interest
Hundreds of fascinating species inhabit the estuary, from harbor seals and bald eagles to hermit crabs and moon jellies. We have highlighted some of the more interesting and visible species that visitors are likely to observe along the estuary.
Alewife – (Alosa pseudoharengus)
Bluish above and silvery below, the alewife has a faint dark stripe on each side. It grows to 15 inches, with a round dark spot on its shoulder. Alewives feed largely on plankton, crustaceans, small fish, diatoms, and copepods. This is an anadromous species, meaning it migrates up rivers from the sea and ascends streams to spawn in fresh water. The newly hatched young return to sea in the fall. Once a common and commercially valuable species up and down the Maine Coast, overfishing and dams without fish passages nearly eliminated it from our waters. Conservation measures have helped this species recover. The area known as the “Mills” at the head of the river is a worthwhile visit to see the largest alewife run in Maine if you are here in May. The alewife ranges from Nova Scotia and the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico.
American Bald Eagle – (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
The Damariscotta River is one of the best spots in Maine to see a bald eagle. Several nesting pairs occupy sites on islands, as well as lakeshore sites within the watershed. This majestic bird often perches along the shore in large pine trees and frequently comes right to the water’s edge in search of food. A conservation success story, this species was nearly lost until DDT was banned and the eagle was listed as Endangered by the federal government. Successful recovery efforts made it possible to move the bald eagle from “endangered” to “threatened” status in 1995 and on June 28, 2007 the Interior Department took the American bald eagle off the endangered species list altogether. The eagle will still be protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Observe this species quietly from the water. Do not land near any of the nesting sites such as Hog Island or at the northern end of Stratton Island.
American Oyster – (Crassostrea virginica)
Native to the Damariscotta River, this mollusk is the species being raised in most of the aquaculture leases in the river. Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans harvested and ate the oysters, leaving behind the largest shell middens found in North America. The middens are located between Great Salt Bay and the downtown bridge, and are accessible by visiting Whaleback Park off Business Route One, across from the Great Salt Bay School. While there are still some native oysters and escapees from lease sites, most of the river’s oysters come from aquaculture. They are considered a local delicacy, both cooked and raw, and can be found in many restaurants and seafood shops in the area. Given that 80% of all oysters grown in Maine come from the Damariscotta River (2005), you can be sure they are fresh!
Common Tern – (Sterna hirundo)
This bird has the distinct characteristic of always being active, patrolling the estuary waters, hovering and then dropping into the water to catch small fish, often traveling in pairs, and making lots of high-pitched squeaks and chirps. They are silvery-grey and white and have long tails, red legs, an orange-red bill with a black tip, and a black cap. Small fish, insects, crustaceans, and other aquatic creatures make up their diet. In the early 1900s, common terns were almost extirpated (driven to extinction) by plume hunters. The Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916 provided protection for this species and while it has recovered, it still remains threatened by predation and human disturbance of nesting sites. Goose Ledge is a protected nesting colony where you are sure to see terns. Keep your distance from shore while observing these birds. If they begin to take flight, you are too close. An interesting note relevant to Maine is that a common tern banded in Maine back in 1919 was found in Africa! That’s a long flight.
Double-crested Cormorant – (Phalacrocorax auritus)
Double-crested cormorants are the most numerous and widespread of the North American cormorants and are a common sight everywhere in the estuary. They are most often seen diving or perched on rocks, piers, and buoys. The cormorant is a large black bird with a long neck and a long beak, and it often flies very low over the water. When perched, it frequently holds its wings in an “arms wide open” posture. Once threatened by use of DDT, the cormorant population has increased markedly in recent years. The cormorant eats mainly fish and is a strong diver. Watch when one disappears on its dive and you are likely to see it surface with an alewife or tommy cod in its beak!
Harbor Seal – (Phoca vitulina)
Seals are a common sight up and down the estuary. The seal species you will see most often is the harbor seal. Harp seals also use the river, but are seen less frequently. The best way to tell the difference between the two is to look at the head. If it’s round, symmetrical, and about the size of a human head, that’s a harbor seal. If it is oversized, almost horse-like, then you are probably looking at a harp seal. Harbor seals swim in all areas of the estuary, and regularly surface next to boats. They range in color from light gray to silver with dark spots. Some are black, dark gray, or brown with white rings. Spots or rings are numerous on the dorsal (back) surface and more sparse on the ventral surface (underside). Seals feed on many different species of fish and shellfish, including the large schools of alewife arriving in May, and the mackerel that move into the estuary at the beginning in July. Favorite seal basking areas include Goose Ledge and Fitch Point on the upper estuary section, and Stratton Island, on the lower estuary. These are great locations to photograph and observe harbor seals (from a respectful distance).
Horseshoe Crab – (Limulus polyphemus)
This is one of the most fascinating creatures you are likely to see moving about in shallow water or walking over mud flats at low tide. This prehistoric-looking animal has survived virtually unchanged for 350 million years. It ranges from Nova Scotia to the Yucatan Peninsula and is locally abundant in coastal estuaries, especially this one. In spite of its appearance, it is a strong swimmer and moves about with ease. Horseshoe crabs forage mud flats, digging mostly for small clams to eat. Males are smaller than females, and females lack the club-like pincers that allow a male to hang onto a female and fertilize her eggs as soon as they are expelled. Horseshoe crabs can be observed any time during the summer months, and there are a few coves where they frequent the mud flats and shore in large numbers, especially at high tide during their spawning months of June and July. Days Cove is a favorite site.
Moon Jelly – (Aurelia aurita)
Ranging between 2 and 15 inches in width, moon jellies are delicate, translucent, saucer-like sea jellies that are easy to see in the river during warm summer months. They are very plentiful in coastal waters everywhere and can be found in the Atlantic Ocean, the Arctic Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean. They are common in the waters off California, Japan, and the east coast of the United States, as well as the European coast. Although a moon jelly is capable of only limited motion, usually drifting with the currents, it stays close to the surface of the water by pulsing the bell-shaped upper part of its body. This allows its tentacles to be spread over the largest possible area to catch food. It feeds by stinging small plankton and mollusks with its tentacles and bringing them into its body to eat.
Osprey – (Pandion haliaetus)
Known as the “Fish Hawk,” this bird of prey has successfully recovered from the days of DDT, when it almost became extinct, to the point that it is now a common sight up and down the coast of Maine and elsewhere. Its roving flight pattern, combined with an unmarked white belly and pointed wing shape, make it easily recognizable. The ospreys’ large stick nests — high up in dead trees, pines, and on navigation buoys — can be seen throughout the estuary. Their high pitched and persistent call is most often heard when you are passing by a nest. Ospreys feed primarily on fish, using their long, curved talons to secure their catch. If you see this bird hovering high above the water, take time to watch it. You just might see it fold its wings and literally plummet into the water, only to emerge a few seconds later holding a big fish.
Striped Bass – (Roccus saxatilis)
The striped bass patrols our coastal, estuarine and tidal river waters from spring to fall. The species is found from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Florida. Its population has rebounded during the past several years, due principally to management of the commercial fishery. It is a very popular sport fish in the Damariscotta River. Striped bass are also called greenheads, rockfish, or schoolies for the smaller individuals that arrive in late spring. A striped bass can grow 5 feet long and weigh up to 125 pounds. Feeding bass are a common sight in the river where, especially late in the summer, their presence is made known by the bait fish breaking the surface while attempting to launch themselves into the air to escape the pursuing striped bass.