Robin Kerr takes a short walk from her office in the summit lodge at Mount Agamenticus to an area of tall grass next to a gravel path. She expertly looks down at the border blades. Here, she says. And here, and here. Here’s five of them, as she stoops down near a withered stalk and looks closely. And there they are — five ticks on the crown of the stalk.
Kerr, the Mount Agamenticus conservation coordinator, said this time of year ticks can be found in abundance on the mountain — and this spring has been particularly advantageous for the insect, with the cool weather and rain, just the conditions ticks like to thrive. As summer advances and weather gets hotter, the population will die back.
But spring is also a great time to come to the mountain for a picnic or a hike on the trails, Kerr said. And she’s always telling people, “Don’t let them stop you from enjoying the outdoors. You won’t get the heebee jeebees if you’re prepared. Bring bug repellent, be vigilant about those tick checks, and enjoy.”
It turns out Mount Agamenticus and southern Maine in general are kind of “tick central” for the state of Maine. The farther north you go, the tick populations drastically drop off, said Griffin Dill, pest management specialist at the University of Maine Tick Identification Lab.
“They’ve been established longer in southern and coastal counties where the temperatures are warmer,” Dill said. “There’s more time for infections to cycle between ticks and the wildlife population” that act as the tick’s host.
Moreover, unlike the spruce forests in the northern part of the state, southern Maine has mixed forests with deciduous trees that drop leaves every fall, creating “the moist leaf litter understory” that is perfect for ticks to thrive, Dill said.
The days when the large, recognizable American dog tick was the only game in town are long gone. In fact, 15 different species have been found in Maine, although not all are permanent residents but arrive via a host animal or bird and do not establish viable populations. Moreover, Dill said, most of those species tend not to be a problem for humans.
Most people today are aware of the prevalence of the tiny deer tick, which can carry Lyme disease. It is estimated that roughly half of all ticks in Maine carry Lyme disease, but anecdotal evidence indicates that number is likely higher on the southern coast, Dill said.
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Lyme disease does remain the most common tick-borne illness, Dill said, but in recent years several other deer tick-borne diseases have been on the rise. The two most common are anaplasmosis and babesiosis, with incidences of both on the increase in Maine. Anaplasmosis cases have nearly doubled from 2012 to 2017. Babesiosis cases have also been steadily on the rise, with 117 cases reported in 2017.
The symptoms are similar to Lyme disease, Dill said, with fever, chills, headaches and body aches. Mount Agamenticus conservation crew member David Tibbetts, who spends most of his time tromping through woods, fields and brush, said he’s been treated for Lyme a dozen times and has also been treated for anaplasmosis. He said the difference between the two is that Lyme is distinguished by muscle aches, where anaplasmosis affected his joints more.
“That’s how my doctor knew what I had,” he said.
All these diseases are treatable with antibiotics, Dill said. There have been cases of other diseases and conditions from ticks, but reporting is typically in the single numbers. Tick experts are watching the introduction of the lone star tick into Maine. Common down South, there have been sightings of the ticks in Maine — noticeable because the female has a white star shape. But whether this species can survive in Maine’s harsh climate remains an unknown, Dill said. Bites from this tick can cause a severe red meat allergy.
Dill said, however, that people should not stay cooped up inside, letting the tick “heebee jeebees” get to you, but to just take precautions, remember that Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics and enjoy the outdoors.
“We don’t want people to be afraid of ticks. Take precautions. Be mindful,” he said
The crew at Mount Agamenticus couldn’t agree more. Kerr said they’ve done what they can to make people aware of the tick population. They have information at the trail boxes and kiosks and are spreading the word through the Mount Agamenticus Conservation Region Facebook page.
Visitations to the mountain have exploded in recent years and today about 40,000 visitors annually take advantage of what it has to offer. Visitors have varying degrees of awareness about ticks.
“We conduct a visitor use survey, and about half of those surveyed are new,” trails supervisor Darin Radatz said. “The expectation among some visitors is to come here and not see any ticks whatsoever. A lot of people aren’t aware. And when you’re not aware, and you come into an environment like this, you are surprised.”
That’s why anyone visiting the mountain this time of year is wise to take simple precautions, like wearing long, light colored pants, wearing a cap (as ticks can fall from trees) and using an insecticide. Natural products are only effective for a couple of hours before they need to be reapplied, Tibbetts said, while products with deet can last three times as long.
The Mt. Agamenticus staff also encouraged people concerned about using a natural product to consider those with cedar essential oils. Those products, they have found, last as long as four hours before having to be reapplied.
“It’s not 100 percent, but it helps,” Tibbetts said.
Kerr said she has not considered spraying for ticks because there are too many unknowns. “I don’t have enough information about how other insects would be affected, or how the runoff would affect the streams.” So people are urged to come to the mountain prepared.
And when returning home after a visit, dogs and people alike should be subject to a thorough tick check. Radatz said shedding brushes for dogs can also be effective for winnowing out ticks in fur. Radatz said when he gets home, after checking his clothes and as a precaution, he’ll throw them into the dryer on high heat for 20 minutes, which will kill any ticks.
Dill works at the UMaine Cooperative Extension Diagnostic and Research Laboratory, a new facility that opened in June 2018. His pest management unit is working to gather verifiable data on tick populations in the state. So, for instance, they will not have to rely on anecdotal evidence that southern coastal Maine is command central for tick populations. They will have data to back that up.
So he’s asking Mainers to help with the identification efforts. People can enter information about ticks they have encountered. They can also send in ticks to be tested. The website, ticks.umaine.edu, provides comprehensive information on ticks as well as instructions on how to provide data and submit a tick for testing.
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