Natural History Calendar
The Natural History Calendar is written monthly by Kristen Lindquist, our Development Director; copyright 2008-2013.
- January 2013: Meditations on Otter Latrines
- February 2013: Meditations on Chasing Rare Birds
- March 2013: Meditations on Early Birds
- April 2013: Meditations on Watching Hawks
- June 2013: Meditations on Lupines
- December 2013: Invasion of the Snowy Owls
- January 2012: Meditations on Gulls
- February 2012: Tracking Our Birds South
- March 2012: Meditations on the Birds in My Neighborhood
- September 2012: Meditations on Spring Peepers in Fall
- October 2012: Fall Migration on Monhegan--Focus on Yellow-rumped Warbler
- November 2012: Meditations on Office Birding
- December 2012: Meditations on Flying Squirrels
- January 2011: Meditations on Wintering Eagles
- February 2011: Meditations on Mass Bird Deaths
- March 2011: Meditations on House Sparrows
- April 2011: Meditations on Maine's Extinct Birds
- May 2011: Meditations on Alders
- June 2011: Meditations on Slugs
- July 2011: Meditations on Animal Sounds, or What Does a Chipmunk Say?
- August 2011: Meditations on the Summer River
- September 2011: Meditations on Porcupines
- October 2011: Meditations on Butterflies
- November 2011: Meditations on Screams in the Night
- December 2011: Meditations on Totems and Clans
As a child growing up in the early 1970s, watching "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" were an integral part of my day. That explains how Fred Rogers' voice singing "Who are the people in your neighborhood...?" became permanently embedded in my memory. The tune arose unbidden in my head today as I set out to observe my neighbors. While I ran into several friendly human neighbors on my walk, I was specifically looking for those of the bird variety. Taking advantage of the transparency provided by bare trees and a brief stint of sunshine, I saw my outing as a quest: who are the birds in my late winter neighborhood?
I was first summoned out for this walk by the loud, repeated "Peter, Peter" call of a titmouse. For a small bird, this one has a big voice. I can always count on the titmouse and its chickadee cousin to show up at my feeder at some point during a day almost any time of year. And when I actually stepped out the front door, I heard the loud "fee-bee" of a chickadee's love song. As I shivered in the chilly air, I hoped that song meant spring was near.
Leaving my yard, I was surprised to see a white-breasted nuthatch whacking a seed from my feeder against a birch trunk. I hadn't realized this bird had stuck around. In the summer, when they're feeding chicks on the nest, I often see the pair taking turns at my feeder, though my sunflower seeds are mere supplements to the food it gets the more usual way--scaling trees upside-down to pick under bark for insects.
From the top of the arborvitae in my neighbors' yard I was a bit surprised to hear the ascending, high-pitched song of a golden-crowned kinglet. I got the bird in focus in my binoculars--no small challenge because they're constantly on the move--and was thrilled to catch a glimpse of its bright yellow crown. An unexpected joy, that splash of color amid the stark trees and dirty snow.
A couple of herring gulls soared overhead, their pale plumage seeming to reflect--with a bit more purity--the snow here below. No matter what the season or weather, gulls always seem to be around, whirling in the air with apparent delight during a snowstorm, riding the wind. The ocean is only a mile away, and their cries--along with the faint moans of a distant foghorn--remind us that we live in a coastal town.
From a patch of woods across the street came the high, sharp squeak of a downy woodpecker. The male often drums on a dead tree next to our shed. Except for the flicker and the yellow-bellied sapsucker, most woodpeckers don't migrate, so this was one of the pair I often see throughout the year. As I watched, he flew to another yard, his slightly dipping flight ending with a tree trunk landing. Because we seem to have a good neighborhood for woodpeckers, with many older trees and small wooded patches despite the house density, we also see pileated and hairy woodpeckers, and I've even seen red-bellied woodpeckers once or twice. I'd love to be able to put out a suet feeder in winter to watch them more closely. Unfortunately I haven't figured out where to place a suet feeder so the squirrels don't sabotage it--there are too many trees too close to our house. The last time I tried, the feeder somehow ended up atop our porch roof, where a flock of gulls got into a raucous battle tossing around the wire cage and its greasy remnants.
Further up the street, where it crosses the Megunticook River and becomes more wooded, I spotted a couple of mallards paddling along the icy fringes. Because the water moves fairly rapidly below Seabright Dam, much of it remains open throughout the winter. Mallards and the occasional black duck follow the river's path behind our house, and a few times we've seen wood ducks searching for acorns. While not as stunning as the male wood duck, the mallard drake's bright green head and flashy blue speculum lend some needed color to the bleak late winter scene composed of black water, dreary scraps of snow on mud, and grey branches.
In the trees past the river I came across the neighborhood crows, a family ranging from four to seven birds that always seem to be hanging around somewhere along our street. A few months ago I watched several of them play in the snow behind our house, tugging at buried branches and rolling side-by-side in the white stuff. They scooped up snow in their bills and appeared to be feeding it to each other. Now, three of them perch along the same branch; I can't help but think that they're brewing some sort of plot. Crows wear that look often, their shiny black eyes gleaming with intelligent mischief. Recently, thanks to Facebook, I watched a video in which a Russian crow repeatedly (and with apparent glee) used a jar lid to slide down a snow-covered roof. I'd love to see our neighborhood crows try that!
I didn't come across any new species as I returned home--no eagle scanning the river, or berry-seeking waxwings, or turkeys that sometimes crowd into nearby yards. But one last neighbor came to call that day. As dusk fell, a cardinal visited the feeder, his silhouette barely visible through the kitchen window. I was probably only imagining I could see the red. I read in a birding magazine that they come to the feeder at day's end because they're shy--but how can you be bright red and shy? He does seem more skittish than the other feeder birds, but then, he also announces his arrival each time with loud, anxious chip notes. In just a few weeks, he'll become downright extroverted, whistling loudly and repeatedly from the willow tree, announcing his territory and availability. In that respect, he's probably not that different from some of my other neighbors cruising the streets of Camden with car stereos blasting. For now, though, winter's lingering, cold touch still keeps the bird, at least, in check.
Remember that unusual raft of 600-plus coots that hung out on Chickawaukie Lake into early January, dwindling down to two, then none, as the lake finally froze over? I think we found them. My husband and I were birding in Florida recently, and coots were everywhere--in canals, swamps, and ponds wherever we went. In fact, as our plane was touching down at Palm Beach International, we passed coots in a wet area alongside the runway. "Our coots!" I exclaimed, feeling as if we had tracked south the very birds we had seen so recently in our own community. It was almost like running into someone you know in an unexpected place, despite the fact that these weren't the same individual birds. Their faces were still familiar.
We got up close and personal with many coots on our first birding stop of the trip, Green Cay Wetlands in Delray Beach, where a long boardwalk traverses the ponds and marshy areas. As you walk the loop, birds paddle around below you, mere feet away, unintimidated by all the nature lovers tromping past. And in the case of the coots, your proximity enables you to hear them as well as you can see them. The vocalizations of coots include a wide range of quite expressive (and loud) grunting and clucking noises that aren't as easy to hear when they're floating in the middle of Chickawaukie. And perhaps the warmer climate--on that day it was at least 60 degrees warmer than back here in Maine--encouraged them to be more chatty. Rather than hanging out in one big, tight raft for protection (and warmth), these coots were relaxed, foraging in the reeds singly or in small groups, paddling alongside ducks, moorhens, herons, and gallinules. We understood, as we too felt more relaxed in the sun and warmth.
This coot has found greener pastures of a sort in Florida. Notice its decidedly un-ducklike feet.
Having found one species that had so intrigued us during its long migration stopover this fall and winter, we wondered what other birds we might find from home. Ospreys were a constant anytime we were near water, but many of the birds we saw in Florida were undoubtedly year-round residents; some were already engaged in nest-building. Still, it made me smile to hear that familiar high-pitched chirping cry overhead, a sound that we normally only enjoy in spring and summer here in Maine. Most of the herons and egrets were probably resident birds, too, but we nonetheless recognized with some delight the great blue heron, snowy egret, green heron, and others that we also associate with the wetlands of coastal Maine. And while we weren't surprised to see dozens of little palm warblers flitting through stands of actual palm trees, we knew that these birds, like us, were on vacation--they nest in boreal forests, including the spruce bogs of Maine.
Great blue heron
On Marco Island on the Gulf Coast, after driving through rampant over-development to reach a small beach, we found some of the shorebirds that migrate through Maine each fall. Birds we often see in Weskeag Marsh in South Thomaston, such as black-bellied plover and greater yellowlegs, crowded together on the tidal flats amid the more exotic reddish egrets and white ibises. However, a flock of what we first thought were semipalmated sandpipers, a bird we've seen by the thousands on its fall stopovers in Weskeag, turned out to be Western sandpipers, a bird that would be a quite unusual find in Weskeag. Apparently the semipalmated sandpipers winter further south, on the Caribbean islands. Next trip.
In Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, amid the ancient cypress trees bedecked with Spanish moss and epiphytes, we came across more birds of home: a handful of black-and-white warblers, a couple of northern parulas, and several common yellowthroats. These all nest in our neighborhood. How strange to spot a black-and-white warbler, a bird I usually see gleaning insects from the trunks of the maples in my backyard, scaling a massive cypress tree bedecked with strangler fig vines. We also ran into some other old friends: many blue-headed vireos, a local breeding bird that shows up frequently in my backyard, and one yellow-bellied sapsucker. Here in Maine most of our woodpeckers are year-round residents, but the sapsucker heads south each fall. There, amid the lush vegetation of the swamp, was a bird that could end up drumming holes in an old apple tree alongside the Ducktrap River come spring.
In an interesting reversal, we also came upon two species in Corkscrew that are common in Florida, but which I'd last seen as rarities on Monhegan Island here in Maine. Last spring we spent a good hour or more tracking down a white-eyed vireo on Monhegan; in the swamp, they were right at home, all around us and singing. Two years ago I was among the excited throngs following a yellow-throated warbler around the island. In Corkscrew, the bright little bird is a regular, par for the course.
We were fortunate to observe many more of Florida's stunning "regulars," including the pink roseate spoonbill, gaudy painted bunting, squadrons of pelicans, and soaring magnificent frigatebirds. But it was (almost) as much fun to see common birds from home keeping company with alligators, palm trees, and orchids.
We've discovered in our travels that the Maine - Florida connection is a strong one. As we met people around the state, we experienced many "small world" revelations--the gallery owner who knows the artist living on Beech Hill, the woman who studied with a poet friend on Monhegan, a guy who was in the Marine Corps with a local restaurateur. But this connection was reinforced just as strongly by our interactions with the familiar birds we saw, the migrant "snow birds" like ourselves enjoying the warmer weather for a few months before returning to our northern yards and wetlands come spring.
In a high school writing class years ago, I wrote a compare-and-contrast essay on how to tell apart different species of Maine gulls. Even then I was both fascinated with birds and bent on encouraging people to take a second look at what's usually dismissed as ordinary. My life as a bird nerd had begun. And thirty years later, I still find gull-watching to be a satisfyingly challenging exercise, especially in winter when most of our more colorful birds have fled to warmer climes. So before you scoff at the idea of watching those scavenging "rats with wings," pay a little attention to this overlooked but ubiquitous family of birds.
An added bonus with gull-watching: you don't have to comb the fields and forests, tromping through snow in sub-zero temperatures to find them. You can often observe them from the warm comfort of your car. If you look carefully at the gulls mobbing a fishing boat, perched on harbor pilings, or waiting hopefully atop the roof of McDonald's, you should be able to easily pick out several different species. And this time of year, when our local gulls have been joined by several northern species spending their winter in the relative warmth of the Maine coast--just call us the Riviera of the Arctic--some of those gulls might be real finds.
Let's start with the quintessential "seagull," the herring gull, found almost everywhere in North America. This is the typical white gull with black-tipped grey wings, the one tourists like to photograph perched next to a scenic waterfront landmark or raucously begging for scraps at picnic areas. Common enough that it can be found almost anywhere in the right season, the herring gull is a year-round resident here on the Maine coast. If you see a gull around here, odds are high that it's a herring gull, which makes it the visual standard against which to compare other gulls.
Adult herring gull, Monhegan Island
The ring-billed gull is similar to though smaller than the herring gull, with, yes, a black ring around its bill. Although more common in summer, a few of these will stick it out through the winter. In a mixed group of both herring and ring-billed gulls, you can easily pick out the smaller species. For some reason the ring-bill in particular prefers hanging out at McDonald's, maybe because the pickings are easier and it doesn't have to work so hard fending off larger gulls.
A third gull found here year-round, the great black-backed gull, is one of the largest gulls in the world. This big, aggressive bird is very distinctive, sporting an all-over black back and wings. The black-back definitely uses its size to its advantage. More than once I've seen one attack and kill a smaller gull, and it's notorious for picking off eider chicks in the summer, as well. There are fewer of these around than herring gulls, but they certainly stand out in a crowd. (And just to keep things interesting, there's also a lesser black-backed gull, which turns up around here every now and then.)
In addition to these three regulars, a keen eye may discern other species typically only found here in late fall - winter. Bonaparte's and black-headed gulls are very small with black commas behind their eyes--all that remains of the black hood of their summer plumage (similar to our summer resident, the laughing gull). Recent Christmas Bird Counts have turned up a black-headed gull or two in Rockland Harbor, as well as a several small groups of Bonaparte's. Bonaparte's gulls are frequently visible from the Rockland Breakwater and the North Haven/Vinalhaven ferries. I've also seen winter flocks congregated around open water on Chickawaukie Lake. The more common, pigeon-sized Bonaparte's has a black bill, while the black-headed sports an orange one. Because of its size, the Bonaparte's in particular can have a twinkling look as it flits in the air, especially when you come across a flock of them feeding together.
Another possible winter find is the Iceland gull, similar in size and shape to a herring gull but featuring much paler wings without the black tips. Some adults can indeed look almost white. For some reason I've usually found this gull on beaches, pecking among the stones below the Owls Head lighthouse, for example, or hanging out on a waterfront strand near Portland's Eastern Prom--where I've also seen the similar but larger glaucous gull.
Most waterfronts offer good gull habitat, as well as less savory but noteworthy places like the Augusta landfill, although the real hotspot for gulls in Maine is Down East. The Old Sow, a giant whirlpool in the turbulent waters off Eastport, wells up with krill and tasty aquatic critters, attracting thousands of gulls. A birder friend recently spotted nine gull species in one outing there, including all of the above-mentioned species, black-legged kittiwake, and the rare little gull (of which he actually saw four!) And then there was that winter a few years ago when I drove to Gloucester, MA, in a snow storm to see my first-ever ivory gull, one of the most beautiful birds I've ever seen. Up in the Arctic, you can find them getting down and dirty in a seal carcass, just like a herring gull here, but in New England the rarity of this errant bird combined with its angelic, pure white plumage elevate it to something truly special.
Who knew gulls could provide hours of such good, clean fun? On a sunny winter afternoon that's too cold for a walk but too lovely to be wasted inside, pick up a good bird book, drive to a nearby harbor, and see how many gulls you can identify. My basic descriptions here were of adult birds. So if you're observing a mixed-age flock, things can get really interesting. Once you think you've got the adults figured out, you can take things up a notch by trying to tell apart the motley juveniles. The herring gull, for instance, doesn't take on full adult plumage till its fourth year, and looks very different after each yearly molt preceding full adulthood. I find myself giving a young herring gull a second look all the time, wanting to turn it into something exotic. You just never know. With bird identification, it's all about paying attention to the details--and that's what makes it so enjoyable for a bird nerd like me.
A friend of mine believes the fox has special meaning for his family. Right after the birth of each of his daughters, three years apart, he saw a fox out the window. One of his daughters is now old enough to tell the story herself. I have no doubt that she'll carry this affinity with foxes throughout her life, sharing the story with her own children one day, perpetuating a family legend.
If my friend were a member of the Tlingit tribe, the fox would probably become part of his family's totem pole. Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest still create family totem poles, the stacked elements of which tell their stories and commemorate various events within family history. Perhaps the family ancestor was a seal woman. She'd be on there. Or maybe Great-Uncle was once lost in the woods and guided home by an eagle flying overhead, so there's an eagle. While some family legends might be familiar enough that other tribe members would recognize their representation on the totem pole, others are highly personal to each family and known only to them. A family's totem pole isn't magic or an object of worship, but rather, a tangible connection to the surrounding natural world, as well as a visual, everyday reminder of the family's long history, many stories, and place within the larger tribe.
For non-Natives, associating yourself with a totemic symbol isn't just some romanticized notion appropriated by New Age types. Many of us, regardless of ethnic or cultural background, form non-familial clans often centered on a symbolic animal. If you're a football lover from the Philadelphia area, you might be an Eagles fan. If you went to Middlebury College like I did, you're a Panther. Think of all the sports teams, from high school up to pro-level, that are Lions, Tigers, and Bears. As a team member, you want to identify yourself with and draw upon your team animal's ferocity and strength. (My high school was the Windjammers--an inanimate mascot that, while unique and reflective of coastal Maine's heritage, was challenging to align with on a personal level.) We flaunt the team image on our clothing. We cheer on the mascot. The Texas Longhorns trot out a live steer named Bevo on occasion. University of Oregon, my grad school alma mater, unfortunately has Donald Duck for its mascot. It's hard to get behind a big cartoon duck wearing a sailor suit. But you'll still hear me cheer, "Go, Ducks!" right along with the rest of the alumni when the football team makes it to a bowl game. As a member of a sports team "clan," you forge interesting bonds with strangers. You might find yourself, for example, clinking glasses with the one other guy in an out-of-town bar also sporting a blue jay on his baseball cap.
Many astrological systems also help us align ourselves with animals, if in a slightly different way. With astrology the luck of your birth determines what "team" you're on. Because of the year in which I was born, my Chinese zodiac sign is sheep or goat. My husband is a snake; fortunately, he loves snakes, or he might find that kind of creepy. (I'm just thankful neither of us is a rat.) As a goat, I'm supposed to be creative, high-strung, and neurotic. (I would not want to be a member of the Goat Clan--we'd all make each other crazy.) In classical Western astrology, my birth date makes me a Pisces, the fish. Perhaps that's why my husband, an avid fly-fisherman, was drawn to me. Then again, he's an Aries, the ram, so maybe he innately recognized our cross-cultural astrological link as split-hoofed herbivores.
There's something about thinking of yourself as a fish, scorpion, or lion that reaffirms an age-old tie, however tenuous, to the natural world. And, as noted in the case of sports teams, some part of the association might be motivated by a desire to take on the characteristics of other animals. We soft-skinned, flabby humans have something to gain from just about any other animal out there: the falcon's swiftness, the turtle's self-protection, the strength of an elephant, the dolphin's grace, the guile of the wily coyote...
We get more personal with this, too, and I don't just mean identifying yourself as a cat person or dog person (although I know some people who are very intense about that one). My husband and I feel such a strong connection to ravens that they were the theme of our wedding and explain our odd black wedding rings. If an animal happens to be part of your name, it's natural to adopt it as your family symbol. A former roommate with the last name Wolf regarded the animal as her family totem, and for that reason alone, chose to keep her name when she married. My sister married into the van Otterloo family--as a big fan of otters, I'm rather envious of that animal association. She got a good one. I also know several people who have had defining life experiences or significant dreams involving particular animals--frog, hummingbird, horse, monkey--such that they now consider these creatures personal totems. Some of them collect representations of the animal to maintain the personal link. It's as if we've never been able to shake those earliest, most primal relationships with other animals. We're still reaching out to them to cultivate facets of ourselves, still touching upon that bit of wildness that remains within us all as members of the human clan.
A friend taking part in an owl survey a few years ago thought she'd heard a barn owl screaming in the woods. At least, she hoped it was a barn owl, because otherwise all she could think is that someone was being murdered. If you've heard a barn owl's hissing shriek (described on the Stokes bird song CD as "human-like scream"), you'll get some sense of her concern. The sound will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. I bet there's a notable statistic from the barn owl's breeding range of 9-1-1 calls made by people who thought someone was being tortured in a barn when really it was just a sociable barn owl. But barn owls aren't found in Maine, so her report was puzzling (if also a bit disquieting).
I was recently reminded of this unsolved mystery when a poster on the Maine birding list-serv this fall, knowing she probably hadn't heard a barn owl, asked what else screams in the night. Curiosity piqued, I decided to do a little research. Like many people, I'd been told growing up that fishers scream. This was easy for me to believe, as it added to the creepiness of an animal that was invariably described as vicious, bloodthirsty, and probably responsible for any missing cats in the neighborhood. (This was before coyotes had become such a big presence in midcoast Maine.) So I started with the (unfairly maligned) fisher.
A YouTube search for "animals screams night" brings up several videos labeled "fisher screaming." The sound recorded is usually a series of short, rasping, drawn-out screaming barks. But in not one of the videos can you see the animal making the noise, which actually made me think of a fox's bark. Fortunately, a search for "fox screams" pulls up some visuals, including one video in which a fox makes the "fisher" noise right in front of the camera in broad daylight. But I still had some doubts about whether a fox (or possibly a fisher) was what either birder had heard screaming in the woods. Even with the fox in full view in the video, the scream is unsettling, but it's not a full-out scary shriek like that of a barn owl.
I consulted with Ron Joseph, a wildlife biologist friend, about fishers and foxes screaming. Ron also had his doubts. As he reminded me, "Mammals are by and large silent outside of the breeding season. Neither fox nor fisher breed in the fall. Foxes breed in January and February and they make a high-pitched barking sound, not a screaming sound. Fishers breed in March, and I've never heard one scream. I'm not saying I know all their vocalizations, but I've just never heard one scream... The only other screaming animal that I know of this time of year is porcupine." Screaming porcupines? Now there's a terrifying image.
He directed me to an article that appeared in the New York Times this past February, "The Silence of the Fishers," which specifically addresses the widespread belief that fishers scream. The writer, Roland Kays, is curator of mammals at the New York State Museum, where he studies fishers in urban versus wild settings. In the process of researching mammal sounds for a wildlife app, he noted that he couldn't find anything resembling a fisher scream in any of the natural sound libraries he consulted. And he, too, thought that the YouTube video screams attributed to a fisher sounded like those of a fox.
Kays asked the country's foremost fisher expert Dr. Roger Powell what he knew about fisher sounds. Other than "little agitated chuckles," which Dr. Powell described as a fisher's "typical vocalization," the only other sound he'd ever heard out of a fisher in his many years of studying them was a "growl-like vocalization, and that was right as the fisher bit my nose (long story—luckily, I still have a nose)."
Also, Kays notes, most predators, except for social ones like coyotes and wolves that call to each other over long distances, are usually silent types, the better for sneaking up on their prey. Many carnivores, especially mustelids like fishers with well-developed musk glands, communicate by scent. "But," he concludes, "an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Someone may still come up with a conclusive YouTube video showing a fisher in mid-scream; until then, the jury's still out.
As far as terrifying wildlife screams on fall nights go, however, Ron did come up with one probable answer. This fall, while up at his family's camp in the woods of western Maine, he too heard "a blood-curdling scream" in the night. He jumped out of bed and ran out to the deck. "I listened to the scream several times," he said. "It turned out to be a barred owl, right above me in a pine." He added, "Most people don't realize (or don't want to accept--they're hoping for a more exotic animal) that barred owls will actually scream without once hooting." I'm also guessing that most people hearing shrieks in the dark woods don't go running toward whatever is making that chilling noise. It's far easier on the nerves to just make a video in the dark and call it a fisher.
Here's a cool trick to show off at an outdoor party: identify the gender of a monarch butterfly. All you need is one monarch butterfly, a common, easily recognizable species: big, orange with black stripes. (The viceroy is similar, but has an extra black stripe crossing the hindwings.) When your chosen butterfly is posed in such a way that you can see the tops of its wings, look for a tiny swelling along one of the innermost stripes of each hindwing. This little blob, a specialized wing scale called the androconium, releases pheremones. If your butterfly's got them, he's a male. He uses those pheremones to attract females.
Male monarch (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons). See the spots?
Once you notice these spots on one monarch, it becomes obvious on others. So start looking! The best place to practice this neat skill is in a field full of milkweed. Monarch females lay their eggs in milkweed in the spring. The caterpillars feed almost exclusively on milkweed throughout their growth stages. And the adults butterflies will sip milkweed nectar, as well as that of other fall flowers such as goldenrod and aster. Milkweed sap contain toxins which make all stages of the monarch's life cycle--from caterpillar to butterfly--poisonous. During migration, when both falcons and butterflies are migrating southward, I've watched hungry merlins snap up monarchs and then quickly spit them back out. Once a merlin tastes one toxic butterfly, it avoids chasing others, which undoubtedly contributes to the overall survival of monarchs (as well as the look-alike viceroys).
During my annual fall pilgrimage to Monhegan Island to enjoy the spectacle of bird migration, I've also found myself paying more and more attention to butterflies. For one thing, they're migrating too. And many good birders--which are the ones I like to follow around--are also good butterfly- and dragonfly-watchers, as well. It comes with the territory--while you're out there looking for one set of flying creature, you can't just ignore the others. The prime appeal of dragonflies for me is their names. I've written an entire column here on their poetic names. But while butterflies also have cool common names--little wood-satyr, summer azure, great spangled fritillary, Melissa arctic--they don't zip past in a blur. They flap past gracefully, pause near or sometimes even land on you. So they're easier to observe and potentially identify. And they're beautiful. They hang out on flowers. There's a reason why you see so many butterfly tattoos. (Well, probably more than one reason, but aesthetics plays its part.)
A friend's recent Monhegan visit produced a list of 21 butterfly species, casually observed while he was actually watching birds. I personally can recognize only about a dozen butterfly species commonly found on the island, and that's when I've been practicing for a few days with those who know a lot more than I do. Each year I try to learn more, remembering once again, for example, how to distinguish the painted lady from the American lady ("American ladies have big eyes."). I can almost understand how some people choose butterflies over birds. Great writer and famed butterfly collector Vladimir Nabokov declared, "Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man." While this is debatable, it certainly reveals the intensity some people feel for these insects.
Some butterflies are easy to ID, especially those I regularly see even around home. The mourning cloak, for example, is a big, dark brown butterfly with yellow hindwing edges, often the first butterfly I see in the spring (because it hibernates), and one I frequently find feeding on rotting apples on Monhegan's trails in the fall.
The cabbage white, one of the country's most common butterflies, is actually a European immigrant, as are some of our most common bird species like starling and house sparrow. This small, white butterfly with black wing spots (two for the female, one for the male--another party trick!) can be seen in open spaces from gardens to farm fields to vacant lots. This is not to be confused with the cabbage moth, the garden pest, which is gray (and, of course, a moth).
Another one that's easy to pick out is the red admiral, which has bold orange-red bands on dark wings, with little white spots on the wing tips. There's apparently some blue in there, as well, from which it derives its patriotic name, but I can't usually pick that out. The unrelated white admiral is just as unmistakable--a bigger bug with wide white bands standing out against all-dark wings. I've seen these on Beech Hill in the summer; they always make me stop and look twice.
My favorite butterfly, a species I've only seen on Monhegan (perhaps because that's the only place I pay so much attention to butterflies?) is the question mark. Its name comes from a silvery pair of marks, on an otherwise leaf-brown underwing, that looks just like its namesake. Calling out, "Oh, look, a question mark!" can elicit some confused responses from the uninitiated. This beautiful butterfly belongs to the group called anglewings because of its irregularly shaped wings, all fancy dips, curves, and points. Its wings are primarily orange with black spots. Many of the ones I've seen have pale wing edges that can sometimes look lavender. The question mark is not to be confused with the comma, which, as you might guess, has a silvery mark shaped like a comma on its underwing. If you aren't fortunate enough to get a good look at what punctuation mark graces the underwing, the primary difference between these two related species is one less spot on the comma's forewing.
Question mark on Mohegan Island
I should have called this piece "Butterflies for Dummies," as this barely scratches the surface of Maine's most common species. Maine has more than 100 native butterfly species, some of which are very habitat-specific or rare, almost all of which are worth a long look. Watching them can become habit-forming. Once you start practicing your party trick of identifying male from female monarchs, you might really start noticing the butterflies around you. And perhaps you may even find yourself one day agreeing with Nabokov. At least about butterflies, if not literature.
Recently my five-year-old niece Fiona came to our house overnight for her first sleepover. After a viewing of the movie "Rio"--"because you like birds, Auntie"--we finally went to sleep way past her bedtime. She slept with me, while poor Uncle Paul was relegated to the guest bed, so it was with some dismay that I was awakened the next morning at 6:15 by a flock of blue jays yelling raucously right outside the bedroom window. I lay there hoping they'd move on soon before they woke up Fiona.
Instead, they got louder. Knowing that the jays get worked up like that when there's a cat in the yard, I decided to get up and chase off the cat so they'd shut up. So I padded across the dew-laden back lawn to see what all the fuss was about. And there, about twenty feet off the ground in a slender maple right next to our shed, clung a young porcupine. Obviously I wasn't going to be chasing that away. By this time, the jays were joined by several cardinals and a crow in their verbal harangue of this arboreal intruder. So I gave up and went back inside.
When Fiona inevitably woke up a few minutes later, awakened by all that racket, she wanted to get up and see why the birds were so noisy. Even out the window we could see the porcupine very well. It was settled into a fork in the trunk, side-to, with its paws embracing the trunk, long claws visible. It shifted a few inches but didn't seem to be going anywhere fast. "It's kind of like a sloth," Fiona declared. Preoccupied by the porcupine, the birds kept up their harassment, but the porcupine seemed utterly unfazed.
A five-year-old can only watch an unmoving rodent in a tree for so long, no matter the initial novelty of the experience. Back inside, I reminded Fiona how once when she was complaining about something, I compared her to an angry porcupine. We listened to my tape of animal sounds so she could hear for herself. While "our" porcupine was silent, perhaps petrified by all those screaming birds, my cassette offered up the voice of an "angry porcupine." Even Fiona agreed that an upset porcupine sounds uncannily like a kvetching child; its long, groaning whine rises in pitch as the creature seems to get more and more frustrated, just like a tired little girl who's not getting her way.
The porcupine hung out in the tree for several hours, shifting only slightly in all that time. Being mostly nocturnal, I think it was trying to settle in for its day's sleep. And the jays did eventually quiet down and leave it (and us) in peace. When we returned from an outing later that afternoon, however, it was gone.
As many dog owners can attest, the porcupine is far from uncommon around here. I've come across them huddled in trees or climbing young maples in spring looking for buds to eat, found their redolent dens and scat piles among rocks on the local mountains, watched them waddle across roads and lawns. I'm always struck by how cute their fuzzy faces are. More than once in a tracking workshop we've come across porcupine sign beneath a hemlock--lots of chewed-off branch tips scattered messily in the snow along with the pungent smell of porcupine urine--only to look up and see the sleeping animal curled right there in the tree. And think about how many road-killed porcupines we see. That sloth-like slowness is a particular detriment when it comes to humans in cars.
Its main protection, quills, don't help against cars, either, but do protect it from most other enemies. Most wild animals will only rarely attack a porcupine, and even approach a carcass warily, flipping it over to eat from the unprotected belly area. The fisher, however, is somewhat notorious for its ability to prey on the porcupine. Relying on its own tree-climbing expertise, a fisher will repeatedly circle a porcupine that seeks refuge in a tree, attacking its unprotected face area until the rodent's throat is vulnerable. Trappers and trackers report finding intact quills in fisher scat, giving credence to the story that the digestive tract of a fisher is invulnerable to quills. That would also explain a fisher's ability to completely strip a porcupine carcass. Master tracker Paul Rezendes reports that another enemy of the porcupine, the great horned owl, will sometimes come down on a treed porcupine from above and drop it to the ground to kill it.
Our pet dogs, however, and other animals unfortunate enough to encounter a porcupine up-close, are not impervious to quills. While a porcupine can't throw its quills, it can release them upon the slightest contact. It can also whip its quill-laden tail like a spiked club with surprising speed. Though the quills don't contain poison of any kind--in fact, porcupine biologist Uldis Roze found they contain a fatty acid that acts as an antibiotic--their very fine barbs enable them to penetrate an animal's flesh and work their way in deeper with each twitch, ultimately moving through the animal and potentially piercing vital organs.
The porcupine is primarily an herbivore, preferring the bark and greenery of conifers like hemlocks in the winter, and branching out to other plants, leaves, tree buds, and fruits in the summer. Rezendes has observed porcupines in the water eating aquatic plants and once even came across a meadow at dusk filled with porcupines grazing on clover with apparent euphoria. After many years of trying to figure out what was making small round holes at the base of hemlock trees, he's also concluded that the porcupine will dig for puffball mushrooms much as a pig will go after a truffle. A porcupine will eat cast-off antlers, perhaps for the protein--those rodent incisors can chew up an antler as if it were just another tender poplar trunk.
Given the porcupine's feeding habits, I still can't quite understand why the birds were so upset with the one in our tree. My husband wondered if a porcupine would opportunistically go after birds' eggs, but it seems more likely to me that the birds simply saw it as a strange creature in their territory and wanted it gone for no better reason than that. In any case, I guess I should be grateful to them for the early morning wake-up call, or Fiona and I would have missed seeing our sweet-faced, quilled visitor.
A lot of creatures swim in the Megunticook River. From my parents' house on the banks of the "mill pond," we've watched beavers ply the waters with branches in their mouths, muskrats hustling from here to there with their snaking tails leaving a curving wake, families of Canada geese, and a loyal pair of loons (with a chick or two in lucky years). From water's edge, we've seen painted and snapping turtles, wriggling leeches, tough-looking dragonfly nymphs, assorted water bugs, frogs--peepers, green frogs, bull frogs--and an array of fish, from little perch to an alarmingly large bass that lurks in the shadows under the float. Ducks of all kinds ply the river year-round, hanging out through the winter in that last patch of open water below the Molyneaux Road bridge. Raccoons pry open freshwater mussels, scattering sharp, open shells throughout the shallows. And, once, a young moose ran through the yard, plunged into the water, swam to the opposite bank, and then lumbered off into the woods. Many animals enjoy immersing themselves in the river, including humans.
But rarely me. For one thing, the river is shallow, and wading out through the too-soft, algae-laced muck to reach deeper water is, well, gross, especially if you factor in the risk of leeches suckering onto your calves. Jumping off the float is a better option, though the water's not deep enough for safe diving (though the worst that would probably happen is you'd end up stuck head-first in a foot of muck). Pond weeds grab at your legs as you swim. And climbing up the ladder to get back onto the float inevitably forces an encounter with a gigantic dock spider or two. One summer someone told me that they skitter across the surface of the water to chase their prey. These things are several inches across if you count their legs, so I avoided the float for several months after I heard that. I've always preferred swimming in the ocean anyway.
But occasionally, when it's hot enough, I'll run to the float and jump off quickly, before I have time to think about what's lurking in or near the water. By August, the silky water feels warm as a bath. Lily pads with flowers drift in ethereal clusters on the edges of the shore--white water-lilies, yellow cow-lilies, spikes of purple pickerelweed. It's like swimming in a Monet painting, without the pretty bridge.
If you swim out to the narrow channel where the original river used to run, the water is deeper and cooler. But most of the mill pond basin, formed when the river was dammed downstream, is a tepid basin. You can actually swim out to what looks like the middle of the river and stand up. From a canoe you can see stumps that ended up underwater when the dam was first built, a small, drowned forest of twisting roots that now harbor small fish and snails.
My husband likes to put in a little kayak at my parents' and fly-fish in little coves and shady places along the river. Once when he was drifting in a narrow inlet, he came upon a tree full of vultures. He checked to see if anything dead was lying around in there, but didn't see or smell anything untoward. As he hung out and cast a line, he realized the vultures were coming down to the water's edge to drink. He could see their tracks in the mud. He'd discovered the secret vulture watering hole.
In late summer, I prefer to simply sit at the water's edge with a good book and enjoy the play of light on the water. Sometimes just the sound of splashing, moving water is enough to make me feel cooler, especially under the shade of my parents' big, old pines. The loons drift by, and if they have a chick, the gangly, grey youngster will often drift near to shore in its attempts to learn to fish. Its parents' intimate solicitude is touching to witness from such close range. Dragonflies with shimmering wings pause on lily pads. As the day lengthens, small kettles of turkey vultures begin to circle overhead after a day of riding thermals above the nearby mountains, getting ready to meet up at their watering hole, perhaps. Come dusk, swallows and bats flit above the pockmarked water's surface to glean flies as numerous as raindrops. Bullfrogs croak among nearby reeds and cattails. The moon rises above the oak trees to shine on the river, illuminating the floats along the shore. For those calm moments, life feels rich and full.
Nighttime might be my favorite time for river swimming. For one thing, I can't see the giant dock spiders in the dark. For some, that could make it worse, but for me, if I can't see them, I'm ok--I just pretend the spiders are tucked away sleeping. On a clear August night the water is so smooth that jumping into the reflected stars is like diving into a bowl of heaven. The sky and water are one dark, seamless swirl of stars. Warmed by weeks of summer sun, the water is indistinguishable from my own skin. I am one with the water, one with the galaxy. I swim out to the middle of the river for a clearer view of the stars. Something moves near me in the water, but I don't panic; it's probably just a beaver on its way to wreak havoc on someone's landscaping. I float quietly on my back, picking out the Summer Triangle--formed by the stars Vega, Altair, and Deneb--the murky swath of the Milky Way, the constant Northern Star. Suddenly, from very close by, a loon calls--a loud, eerie tremolo. I'm startled but thrilled--I'm swimming with a loon! I try not to move, even after I hear it dive. I want this moment to last a long time.
Spending time playing with my young nieces, I'm reminded that among the first things we teach children--in addition to body parts (where's your nose?), colors, numbers, and the ABCs--is what sounds different animals make. There's the toy barn with the door that moos, the toy that oinks when you push on the pig, meows when you push the cat, etc. and Old McDonald is still on his farm with a "baa, baa" here and a "quack, quack" there. By age two, most kids have the household and barnyard animals down pat, along with being able to roar like a lion and squeak like a mouse, even if they've never actually seen any of these creatures.
But what about the other animals that live around them, in their own back yards and woods? What does a deer say, or a raccoon? Or a chipmunk? Turns out that many adults--myself included--are still learning their wild animal sounds.
Recently, a birder I know emailed me and a few other fellow birders a short sound recording of a bird he'd heard in the woods near his house. He was mystified by the sound and wondered if it was made by a yellow-billed cuckoo, a uncommon species in Maine. I played the recording several times and was stumped by the long series of low, repeated "cluck" notes, deep and even-toned. I played black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoo songs to compare, and neither sounded quite right, although the cadence was closest to the black-billed. I played other bird songs, but nothing matched. I had no clue. By day's end, however, we had an answer, from an experienced birder up in Aroostook County: it was a chipmunk.
Now, I've heard chipmunks. Lots of them. And so had my birder friend. Who in this part of the world hasn't startled a chipmunk in a stone wall and heard its sharp "chip!" as it disappears into a crevice? Or perhaps heard that same piercing chip, repeated incessantly by the vigilant chipmunk near its hole on the edge of the lawn? There's no shortage of chipmunks in this part of Maine. So while my friend felt humbled and a bit embarrassed, I was more surprised by this answer--and not just because I'd thought the sound must've been made by a bird. If you're listening for birds, you're going to hear what you assume is a bird. But I thought I knew what sound a chipmunk makes. And this was a whole new sound.
Curiosity piqued, I unearthed from amid by bird song CDs a cassette tape called "Wild Sounds of the Northwoods," by Lang Elliott and Ted Mack. The tape features 111 species, mostly birds, but also ten different frogs (and a toad), one insect (pine sawyer), and seven mammals, including the wily critter in question, the Eastern Chipmunk. Fortunately, I still possess one of those technological relics, a cassette player, and was able to play the tape to verify what a chipmunk sounds like. Sure enough, there was the familiar, high-pitched "chip, chip, chip" sound from which the CHIPmunk undoubtedly got its name. But after a short pause, another sound: "cluck, cluck, cluck," just like on my friend's recording. I'd obviously been more focused on the birds than the beasts when I used to listen to this tape.
Chipmunk stealing blueberries at our office last summer
The tape comes with a handy booklet that details the habitat of each creature featured on the recording, as well as a description of its voice. The chipmunk is described thus: "Responds to danger from ground predators with high-pitched chips, repeated from a safe perch: chip, chip, chip, chip, chip... A deeper cluck-call is given in response to aerial predators: cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck..." I felt the dawning of enlightenment as I read this. Of course I only knew the first call--to a chipmunk, I'd be perceived as a ground predator. I was reminded of various studies that have shown that different species of monkeys will make a distinctly different noise when perceiving an aerial versus a ground threat. Vervet monkeys in Africa, for example, have three different alarm calls to indicate whether the observed predator is a leopard, martial eagle, or python. But who would have expected a little rodent like a chipmunk to possess such semantic abilities?
As things often go, since this aural revelation I've heard this second chipmunk call several times now. When I run this time of year, I leave my iPod at home because I like to keep my ears open for any birds I might hear along my route. I keep a mental list as I go, which helps distract me from my laboring lungs. On my last run, I heard cardinal, goldfinch, song sparrow, catbird, house wren, titmouse, chestnut-sided warbler, ovenbird, robin, hermit thrush, and blue jay, plus a chipmunk's "aerial predator" call from deep within the woods bordering Cobb Road. Perhaps a crow was perched nearby, or one of the neighborhood merlins. I'm hesitant to confess how excited I was to hear that call for myself in the wild and to know what it meant.
As I played through my "Wild Sounds of the Northwoods" cassette, I was reminded of my favorite wild animal sound, at least as exemplified in this collection: the porcupine. The accompanying booklet describes its voice perfectly: "Generally silent, but during squabbles with other porkies, individuals make expressive screaming sounds that have an unforgettable character suggesting cry-baby discontent." It's difficult not to anthropomorphize when a complaining animal sounds so much like a whiny human.
The play list also includes white-tailed deer, which I've heard snort in a most un-Bambi-like way when startled along a trail, and red squirrel, one of the more assertively vocal creatures I've ever come across while hiking in the woods. The scolding red squirrel's staccato stream of chucks and chips is certainly more difficult to replicate for a child's instruction than, say, the horse that goes "neigh." Surprisingly, the tape doesn't include coyote or even red fox, which has a distinctive bark and a blood-curdling territorial scream which sounds eerily human. I've heard a fisher's scream is similarly terrifying. Perhaps Elliott and Mack wanted to keep their cassette family-friendly. I'm just thankful that it included the chipmunk that says, "Cluck, cluck, cluck."
Consider the lowly slug. When I was a child of about five or six, I apparently did. My grandmother was busy with a sharp garden tool killing slugs that were rampaging through her strawberry patch. "But Nanny," I implored, "slugs have to live too." I came around a little bit when she showed me all the strawberries that I wouldn't have the chance to eat because the slugs had beaten me to it. But for the rest of her life, she would always remind me of that story if I were engaged in a barbaric activity of any kind. And it comes to mind now as I methodically move through my flower beds plucking slugs off the tender plants. I still can't kill the things, even though I confess to sometimes freaking out a little if I've got one stuck to me. When my parents grew a vegetable garden, my dad would set out bowls of beer to lure and drown the unsuspecting slugs. For some reason drowning a slug in beer--my father always assured me that they died happy--wasn't so horrifying as chopping it up with a trowel.
A local writer I know has recently written a beautiful book called "The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating." When she promotes the book, she plays a recording of the actual sound of a snail eating. You can hear it crunching on a carrot; snails have hundreds to thousands of teeth in those soft little mouths! I've gotten down on my hands and knees to find out if I can hear that shell-less snail, the slug, chewing on my day lily leaves, but so far no luck--just a closer view than I'd like of that silvery trail of slimy slug mucus.
In college, my friends from the West coast assured me that our little New England slugs were nothing. On "the other coast," they informed me with a certain tone of reverence in their voices, they have the banana slug. Later, when I attended graduate school in Oregon, I encountered first-hand the world's second largest slug species and was duly impressed. (The first words out of my mouth upon seeing my first one on the trail were wildly exclamatory and unprintable.) Slugs out there are indeed giants, and an encounter with one can be rather dramatic. The resemblance to a banana is not insignificant--you do not want to step on one of those huge yellow creatures. The University of California at Santa Cruz has adopted the banana slug as its mascot, Sammy, which says as much about the quirky sense of humor of its students as it does about the undeniable magnificence of this gastropod.
As with any creature, even a small slimy garden pest, the closer you look, the more interesting it becomes. For example, the sex life of a slug is wacky. Slugs are hermaphrodites, meaning each one possesses both male and female sex organs. This simplifies the slug dating scene--all a slug has to do to mate is find another slug. This also explains why there are so many of them. (Our reliably moist climate doesn't hurt either.) But here's where it gets weird: mating slugs apparently practice something called apophallation. I quote Wikipedia: "In apophallating species, the penis curls like a corkscrew and during mating often becomes entangled in the mate's genitalia. Apophallation allows the slugs to separate themselves by one or both of the slugs chewing off the other's penis. Once its penis has been removed, the slug is still able to mate using only the female parts of its reproductive system." Lucky slug.
The slug is almost cute here...
As you'd expect with a soft-bodied, abundant little creature, the slug gets eaten by a lot of things (besides its mate). I remember from a favorite childhood picture book that the hedgehog favors slugs as food. I've also come across a wood turtle with its mouth full of slug. I've been told that even salamanders will eat slugs. Don't try this at home, however, as I've read that a slug may, rarely, transmit a form of parasite-borne meningitis if eaten by humans.
Slugs themselves, as most of us have witnessed, eat plants. They seem to really like my dahlias and day lilies in particular, and they wreak havoc rather indiscriminately in the vegetable garden. And of course they love strawberries. Almost every gardener I know complains about them. Master Gardener Fred Davis admonishes on his website: "First, and probably most important, never - ever - let a slug get away! You must be ruthless in your search for and destruction of these fat, slimy and hungry creatures." For non-toxic removal of slugs, he urges the simple technique of picking them off your plants and drowning them in a jar of salt water. (Slugs can't swim, and the salt draws the moisture from their bodies.) He scoffs at the bowl-of-beer method, recommending a series of buried jars of yeast in water as a more effective alternative. Apparently slugs love yeast (hence the attraction to beer). Raising the pH of the soil will help keep slugs away, too, according to Davis. You might feel a bit like you're casting a spell, but sprinkling a circle around your garden of ashes or lime, both of which are alkaline, will ward off slugs like magic.
In the woods I often notice mushrooms that have been chewed at by slugs, including the colorful Amanita mushroom, which contains a highly toxic hallucinogen. I can't help but wonder if the slug is affected by this, enjoying its trip, or if something in its mucus blocks the chemical effects. I've never found bodies of slugs lying around the base of one, but then again, I'm sure something as edible as a slug doesn't lie around for long once dead. Another question to ponder: if a slug eats a hallucinogenic mushroom, is the creature that eats it affected by the toxins? Again, you probably don't want to try this at home.
In this season when leaves are almost the size of squirrels' ears and the first wildflowers brighten the forest floor, when mornings resound with birdsong once more, I find myself drawn to an unlikely spring bloomer: the alder. A plain and abundant tree bearing indistinct flowers, the alder is often overlooked. But its buds have been in front of our eyes all winter, clusters of stubby brown fingers at the ends of alder branches. Now these fingers have swelled and lengthened into drooping yellowish-brown catkins, the male flower. (The female buds have been less noticeable, tiny little nubs blooming into smaller reddish catkins.) Most alders flower before their leaves have fully opened. The catkins of either gender are just as much a symbol of the season as those of the pussy willow, and obvious enough if you look. But cute and fuzzy trumps drab and droopy in our eyes. The part of the alder most of us recognize--although perhaps not realizing what it is--is the little, dry, round, brown "fruit" that looks like a miniature pine cone (and is often used as such in holiday decor).
Male buds of a green alder found on the Ducktrap River Preserve
Barely more than a shrub, the alder congregates in stands of crooked smooth, grey trunks. It commonly fills the low, wet places-marshes, bogs, streamsides, and roadsides. It's a tree we're used to seeing around here, not ornamental in any way, nothing we would deliberately plant to enhance our backyard landscaping. Yet the alder boasts a rich mythological history, as well as some botanical points of interest, making it worth a closer look.
Mythologists have identified the alder as one of the sacred trees of Celtic Britain, a symbol of regeneration associated with Bran the Blessed, an ancient god of, among other things, poetry and the underworld. In the medieval Welsh legends collected in the Mabinogian, Bran is depicted as a hero giant possessing a magic cauldron that restores the dead to life. The Celtic word for alder, "fearn," was the letter F in Ogham, an Old Irish alphabet that we would now think of as a form of runes. So the alder's connection to ancient magic is a strong one.
And its link to the restoration of life isn't entirely the stuff of legends, either. Herbalists have long noted the alder's ability to reduce inflammation caused by skin irritations or infections. Alder bark, like willow bark, contains salicin, which when ingested becomes salicylic acid, otherwise known as aspirin. The red alder, a Pacific coast species, has been found to contain betulin, a compound that reduces the swelling of lymph nodes and tumors.
In addition to its medicinal qualities, the alder pulls off true resurrection on a landscape scale: it restores life to barren ground by virtue of nitrogen-fixing bacteria living on its root nodes. The bacteria draw in nitrogen--a prime component of most fertilizers--from the air, thus providing nourishment to the tree. (The alder's role in this symbiotic relationship is to secure carbon, necessary for the bacteria, through photosynthesis.) The nitrogen not only feeds the tree, but when the nitrogen-rich leaves fall to the ground, they decompose and further fertilize the soil. In this way, the alder plays a significant role in reforestation.
The tangled nest of an alder thicket also provides sustenance to a variety of wildlife. In winter, alder buds commonly attract redpolls, a boreal finch. More than once I've stood still and quiet in the middle of a patch of alders as a small flock of these pretty little birds darted all around me, pausing now and then to bob gently from a catkin. I have no doubt that deer enjoy these protein-rich buds, as well, all the more so because a dense alder thicket creates a relatively safe place to forage, the twisting trunks creating a natural fencing. This natural fencing combined with the shade of leaf cover may also help prolong the life of vernal pools within alder patches.
Because the alder prefers a moist bed, open edges of alder thickets can be ideal places to observe displaying woodcocks. On Beech Hill in Rockport I almost stepped on a woodcock nest at the edge of an alder thicket--the mother bird, who had been completely camouflaged, flushed at the very last moment. Unlike other shorebirds, which we find on our beaches and along our coast, the woodcock prefers a woodsier life and a diet of worms. Several common warbler and sparrow species, including common yellowthroat, yellow warbler, Wilson's warbler, and Lincoln's sparrow, favor alder habitat, as well as the aptly named alder flycatcher. (Fun fact: this otherwise nondescript little songbird can be readily identified by its repetitive, two-note song--a quick "free beer.")
So while it may not look like much, the early-blooming alder bears power, be it through alignment with ancient stories and alphabets, its healing qualities, or its ecological role as a life-giving pioneer plant and creator of habitat. Sometimes the most familiar things around us deserve a closer look. And May is one of the best times to do so. In early morning stand near a cluster of alders on the moist edge of a quiet meadow. If you're patient, and lucky, bright warblers, migrating northward, will flit before you among the waving brown pennants of gone-by catkins, to cast their spells of color and song--that wild and beautiful spring magic that never fails to revive the spirit.
Ghosts haunt the Maine wilderness, ghosts of animals that once inhabited our woods and waters. Sea minks no longer ply the offshore waters, raiding seabird colonies under cover of darkness. The ethereal howl of the gray wolf has been replaced by the yapping of the coyote. Woodland caribou have vanished from the spruce forests of northern Maine. And in this season when birds begin to return, I find myself thinking about those we'll never see again.
At this time of year 200 years ago we'd be saying a seasonal goodbye to the Labrador duck. As with other ducks that winter in protected harbors and inlets along the coast, this bird nested far north of Maine, although its breeding territory hasn't been determined. Given the male's striking black and white plumage, this duck would have been easy to identify among the other sea ducks. Its unusual bill, with an odd tip created by a soft extension of the upper mandible, would have been especially noticeable. Such an adaptation indicates that the duck had a specialized diet, probably snails and shellfish.
This diet may have hastened its extinction. A bird that needs to feed close to shore would undoubtedly have been impacted by human presence; excessive skittishness and/or competition for the same food could have adversely affected its winter survival rate. And although the duck apparently didn't taste good, that didn't usually stop hunters or egg gatherers. The paucity of records of this attractive little duck, however, also indicates that its numbers were never great. The last Labrador duck was "collected" (i.e. shot) off Long Island, New York, in 1875, with no further sightings reported after 1878.
Unlike the Labrador duck, the great auk left behind more of record, perhaps because it was more difficult to overlook. In his 1605 narrative of the voyage of Captain George Waymouth, James Rosier includes "Penguin" on his list of "Profits we saw the Country yeeld in the small time of our stay there," indicating that the auk was present in notable numbers. Rosier also reports that they came across shells of eggs "larger than goose eggs" in their exploration of islands east of the mouth of the St. George River. Imagine what it would have been like to come across a "penguin" nesting colony on Monhegan or Matinicus.
Like the penguin of the Southern hemisphere, the great auk was a big, flightless, black-and-white bird, almost three feet tall and weighing as much as 11 pounds. Related to the guillemot and puffin, it was believed to mate for life and had a lifespan of up to 25 years. Although it was a fast swimmer and could stay underwater longer than a seal, its awkwardness on land and its lack of fear around humans made it easy to kill with a simple club. Thus it was hunted for food throughout the north Atlantic from Neanderthal times, and over-hunting ultimately brought about its demise.
The last straw for the great auk was an increased European demand for down triggered by near-extinction of the eider. Some of the earliest conservation laws enacted were not enough to save the species. The last great auks were killed on Iceland in 1844, and were probably long gone from Maine waters before that. Flightless birds that tasted good didn't really stand much of a chance once humans came along in significant numbers.
We hear often about the plight of the passenger pigeon, yet because they've moved into the realm of legend, it's difficult to get our heads around the fact that they used to pass through Maine in great numbers during migration and even nest here. The passenger pigeon was the only native dove species in the state for centuries. (The mourning dove was a late arrival here, showing up in the 1950s.) The explorer Samuel de Champlain reported seeing passenger pigeons on islands off Cape Porpoise in 1604. John Josselyn, who lived in Scarborough in 1638-39 and 1663-1671, describes seeing "millions and millions" of birds on their fall migration in flocks stretching four or five miles, "so thick that I could see no Sun." They were recorded in over 60 Maine towns, with "immense flocks" being seen, for example, in Warren in April 1817.
Those Warren birds were returning migrants. If passenger pigeons were still alive, we'd be awaiting their return to Maine about now, tracking the massive flocks as they moved through on their way to the northern forests. There aren't many birds we can reliably see anymore in such large flocks. Starlings, which were introduced in the mid-1800s, might come closest to replicating the experience, but even they don't flock up by the millions. The last accepted passenger pigeon record in Maine is for a bird shot in Dexter in August 1896.
One last lost bird, the Eskimo curlew, may or may not be extinct. As with the ivory-billed woodpecker, every decade or so someone reports seeing one, so its federal status remains in limbo. This medium-sized sandpiper also flew in remarkable flocks. So when passenger pigeon numbers began to dwindle in the late 1800s, commercial hunters naturally turned their guns on the Eskimo curlew. It was nicknamed the "dough bird" because of the fat it added during migration--a characteristic that undoubtedly contributed to its appeal as a game bird. Very few sightings have been recorded in Maine since 1900, but in the late 1870s flocks of "thousands" of curlews were blown onshore by storms (and then shot) during fall migration.
Maine lay directly in the fall flight path of the Eskimo curlew, which migrated from breeding grounds in Alaska and northwestern Canada to the pampas of South America by way of the Northeast and the Atlantic Ocean. In spring it traveled back to its Arctic breeding grounds via the Great Plains, where it feasted on grasshoppers and other insects. As with the passenger pigeon, uncontrolled hunting brought about its downfall, as well as the destruction of the tall-grass prairie, an essential habitat for spring migrants.
All that we've lost casts a long shadow. Our skies and waters are much emptier than they used to be, and it's probably impossible for us to truly comprehend the wildlife legacy we should have inherited. But this time of year the landscape, enlivened by new leaves and returning birds, still has the power to stir in us age-old feelings of renewal and hope. That will have to be enough for us now.
**Image of Great Auk by John Gerrard Keulemans from Wikimedia Commons
If you know me or my husband, you might be surprised to learn that we own wedding china. Since we're hardly formal types, it's probably less surprising that we chose a particular bird-themed English earthenware. Our plates, mugs, and bowls are covered with British birds: turtledove, European robin, puffin, lapwing, blue tit, black-headed gull. I love our dishes, and because I'm always afraid I'm going to break a piece featuring one of my favorite birds--the kestrel, perhaps, or snowy owl--I push those to the back of the cupboard and use the less special ones first. My cereal bowl most mornings, for example, is the sparrow.
In England, there are only two sparrow species: house and tree. My bowl depicts a house sparrow. These Old World sparrows are only distantly related to the dozens of sparrow species found here in the United States. In Maine alone you can see over 20 species of New World sparrows. Despite that, Mainers are more likely to have seen a house sparrow than any of our native sparrows. Introduced in the 1850s with horrifying success, the house sparrow has become a ubiquitous urbanite, looked down upon with the same disdain reserved for the (also introduced) pigeon and starling. It's become one of the most common species in the country and one of the most widespread species in the entire world. So that's how my sparrow bowl came to be used more than any of the others--because there's nothing special about a house sparrow, at least not on this side of the Atlantic.
Familiarity can breed affection, however. Because I use my house sparrow bowl almost every day, I've developed a special fondness for it. And I hesitate to say it, but this fondness has carried over just a little bit into real life. In the middle of a snowy winter, birds often seem few and far between. But you can always count on the house sparrow. The park hedgerow at the corner of Main Street and Atlantic Avenue in Camden teems with house sparrows any time of year. The other day I walked past this leafless thicket of shrubbery and noticed that it was swarming with them, mostly hidden by branches and snow, but sounding admirably vigorous. The house sparrow's song, an insistent, repetitive "cheep," conveys a certain sassy attitude and robustness, especially when there's a flock of them calling all at once. The musical hedge sounded very much alive on that cold winter's afternoon.
A male house sparrow is not an unattractive bird, either, which is probably one reason why it's pictured on my bowl. Puffier than our native sparrows, the male in breeding plumage sports a black bib, rusty nape, patterned reddish-brown back, and smooth grey belly. As is often the case with birds, the female's much plainer, recognizable for her overall drabness. The house sparrow is a gregarious bird, roosting and nesting communally, and almost always found near towns. If there are buildings, it will come. If there are buildings and lots of food, it will come even faster and in greater numbers. In the summer when you're dining al fresco, those little grayish-brown birds pecking for crumbs at your feet are house sparrows. They can be quite aggressive, chasing each other with vigor and coming brazenly close for the chance to grab a snack.
While this can be "cute" on a small scale, the bird's aggression and appetite have given it a bad reputation world-wide. First introduced in Brooklyn, New York around 1851 by Nicholas Pike to help get rid of insect pests, the birds quickly thrived by eating seeds in horse droppings. Horse-powered transportation thus fostered what quickly became a burgeoning population of this newcomer. Portland, Maine holds the dubious honor of being one of the first American cities to host the bird, when a Colonel Rhodes of Quebec released several pairs there on his way home from England to Quebec in 1854. The subsequent craze of introducing the bird all over the country stands as a perfect example of why following a fad isn't always a good idea.
From the cities where it was introduced, the house sparrow spread into the countryside, where it quickly became an agricultural pest devastating seed crops, fruits, and grain stores. Thomas Nuttall referred to them as "ruffians in feathers" in his "Popular Handbook of the Ornithology of Eastern North America" and asserted that they "have taken possession of every town and village, from Cape Breton to Florida, and west to the plains." This was published in 1896, less than 50 years after the sparrow's initial introduction.
The house sparrow also drove away native birds from bird houses and nest holes. Apparently a flock of house sparrows is a force to be reckoned with, even for a larger bird. House wren, purple martin, bluebird, and swallow populations were all and continue to be adversely affected by house sparrow competition. While it thrives on its connection to humans, the bird certainly hasn't done much to endear itself to us--not that that's the role of a wild creature.
In his 1920s classic "Birds of Massachusetts and Other States," Edward Forbush declared generously, "[The house sparrow] has been branded as thief, wretch, feathered rat, etc. etc., but whatever may be said about it, the bird is certainly important... In any case, it is here to stay and we must make the best of it." He went on to describe it as "a sturdy, upstanding little fowl, aggressive, pugnacious and active." I think he rather admired the house sparrow. While I'm sure it wasn't because he had one on his cereal bowl, something about the bird mitigated his attitude toward a creature that he also called "one of the comparatively few injurious species of the world."
Forbush was already noting that the replacement of horses by cars was helping keep in check the house sparrow hordes. For better or worse, increased use of pesticides on crops in the past half-century has had a similar effect. Yet a mass of house sparrows still cheerily chirps away in Harbor Park and on street corners in every other town and city. It's certainly here to stay, and perhaps the only way we can "make the best of it" at this point is to find something to admire--its tenacity, its perky demeanor, or the vitality it embodies even as the snow and cold of late winter linger on.
The new year began on an inauspicious note for wildlife. On New Year's Day, several thousand red-winged blackbirds were found dead in Beebe, Arkansas, and then a few days later, almost 500 dead grackles and blackbirds were found dead in Louisiana. Meanwhile, in Falkoeping, Sweden, a hundred dead jackdaws, a bird related to the crow, were found dead on a highway. Seven hundred turtledoves fell from the sky in Faenza, Italy, a few days later.
What was happening in the world? A Google search for "bird mass deaths" produces interesting results, including religious sites proclaiming these mass deaths as a sign of imminent apocalypse (or "aflockalypse," as some put it). Even one of the wildlife officials in Arkansas joked that they were now waiting for the plague of locusts. Other sites blame the Arkansas event on the military. Another on earthquakes caused by natural gas fracking. Theories expressed in the press have ranged from the usual government conspiracy to power line collisions to violent weather to a shift in the earth's magnetic poles to a lemming-like mass suicide by animals who couldn't bear life on this human-corrupted planet any longer.
Turns out most of these mass deaths not only had a rational explanation, but apparently aren't all that uncommon in the scheme of things. The power of instant communication via the Internet simply generated greater buzz and anxiety among those who in the past would have remained blithely ignorant of such events. Wildlife authorities determined that the Arkansas birds, for example, were scared off their night roosts by fireworks. Not being night fliers, the panicked birds crashed into trees, buildings, and each other in the dark and died of internal trauma. The flock of Swedish jackdaws may have also been startled by fireworks into the road, where they were hit by cars. And it turns out a recent mass bird death in South Dakota really was caused by the government. A few days after the birds were found, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confessed to poisoning the flock, which had been defecating in a feed lot.
Once you start looking, stories of mass deaths aren't hard to find. Going back to the early 1700s, you can find diary entries of Maine hunters who routinely shot "ten dozens" of the now-extinct passenger pigeon in a day's outing. In 1976, 60,000 long-tailed ducks in the Baltic Sea made the fatal mistake of landing on what they thought was a smooth patch of water that turned out to be a small oil spill. Somewhat closer to home, 1,600 ducks died in 2009 after landing on oil sand fields that were part of an oil extraction facility run by Syncrude in northern Alberta, Canada. The oil coated the birds' feathers, causing them to sink and drown.
The key is to put these stories in perspective. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently explained in an eNews release, "These isolated events, although dramatic, are not highly unusual in frequency or scale. Within the United States, for example, the U.S. Geological Survey has recorded 188 events during the past 10 years involving more than 1,000 birds per incident--about 18 events per year on average, or more than one per month, attributed to disease and other causes." The more newsworthy mass events overshadow the basic fact that humans exact a much larger toll on birds every single day, with much broader implications for species' survival.
As Jeff Wells, Senior Scientist for the Boreal Songbird Initiative, stated in a recent piece about this confluence of mass deaths: "[These] mortality events are sad and tragic but of far greater overall impact to most bird populations are factors like habitat loss and degradation–the leading cause of decline–as well as issues like climate change, pollution (including from air pollution, pesticides, oil spills, etc.), invasive species, collisions with buildings, telephone wires, and communication towers, and domestic cat predation." He adds, "Perhaps the most valuable lesson we can take away from these reports is a general awareness of our growing impacts on birds and other animals." The Cornell Lab cites statistics of 100 million birds dying each year from window collisions; another 100 million are killed by cats. That's an average of more than 540,000 birds killed each day by those two causes alone! But you don't see that reported on CNN.
Wells identifies places like the Boreal Forest of Alaska and Canada as being all the more worthy of protection because they are relatively safe places for birds and other wildlife to escape from all these human-generated elements of disaster. Conserved lands, including state and national parks, national wildlife refuges, and land trust or town preserves, should be regarded as all the more valuable for this very same reason.
Here's one more story that received less coverage, but had arguably greater consequences for the species involved. At the end of this past December, three endangered whooping cranes were found shot dead in Calhoun County, Georgia. This would hardly be considered a significant event, unless you consider that there are only about 400 whooping cranes left in the world.
These birds were probably led to their southern wintering grounds during migration season by a small airplane. Thousands of hours of human effort (and thousands of dollars) were put into their survival, to help ensure the continuance of the species. And some idiot shot them. Whooping cranes are large, striking, majestic white birds. You wouldn't confuse them with a duck, turkey, or anything else that's legal to hunt. This wasn't a mistake. It was a deliberately malicious act, bringing a bird species of incredible beauty and cultural value that much closer to extinction. And that, to me, is more disturbing than any of the recent mass death stories.
During the colder months when many birds and humans alike head for warmer climes, one local population increases exponentially. The Midcoast region, particularly the St. George River valley, is one of the premiere winter gathering areas for bald eagles. Dozens of eagles fly up and down the river itself, visit nearby frozen lakes and ponds to nab fish from ice fishermen, and forage along the open coastline. The Thomaston-Rockland Christmas Bird Count, which covers a territory from Rockland Harbor to Warren and out along the St. George and Cushing peninsulas, tallied 114 eagles last month.
My parents frequently enjoy eagle visitations along the Megunticook River. In view from their house is a conveniently located snag where eagles can perch just above a fast-moving section of river that almost never freezes. As surrounding waters ice up, ducks cluster in that small open patch and become, quite literally, sitting ducks for this persistent bird of prey. Eagles are nothing if not opportunists.
In a true winter spectacle, great numbers of eagles can often be observed hanging out in the trees around a big poultry processing facility and its abutting fields along Route One in Warren, transforming rural, midcoast Maine into a scene right out of Alaska's Chilkat River Eagle Preserve. Granted, the Alaskan eagles are feeding on wild, river-run salmon and these birds are clearly awaiting the dispersal of offal, but somehow that makes it no less thrilling (though a bit less romantic). I often go out of my way to drive by the farm this time of year, because I don't think I'll ever get used to the obvious abundance of what used to be a very rare bird.
The bald eagle was an endangered species most of my life, so I remember clearly the first one I ever saw. I was a teenager, hiking along an oceanfront cliff on Mount Desert Island. An adult eagle unexpectedly soared past at almost eye level, and I couldn't help but shout. That same urge to shout for joy still arises whenever I see one now, even though the eagle has made a tremendous comeback and is becoming a common sighting year-round, especially in coastal Maine. Thanks to the prohibition of DDT and a lot of federal assistance (including winter feeding, a form of "eagle welfare"), the eagle population is now healthy and stable enough that the bird was federally de-listed in 2007. (It is still protected, however, by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.)
Hanging out with a big bunch of eagles, as at the poultry farm, offers the unusual opportunity to watch them interact with one another. Sometimes if we get out of the car for a better view, we hear them vocalize, squealing at one another as they jockey for position among the branches. An eagle's high-pitched, rather wimpy voice does not convey the dignity that befits our national symbol. (That noble screech often accompanying the image of an eagle on a television ad is actually the call of a red-tailed hawk. When it comes to birds, there's little truth in advertising.)
According to Charlie Todd, the state's eagle biologist, most eagles that breed in Maine remain here through the winter. Maine boasts one of the highest eagle populations in the lower 48 states, with over 400 nesting pairs. (In 1967, the year of my birth, there were only 21 pairs.) In winter our biggest resident raptor congregates in shared night-time roosting trees that offer good protection from the elements. Each morning the birds disperse on their daily quest for food. Don Reimer, a birder friend who lives in Warren right on the St. George River, regularly counts the birds in their morning flight past his house. Sixty to seventy birds are not uncommon, and on some winter days he's even picked out an errant golden eagle among them.
Watching many birds in close proximity at the poultry farm also offers the chance to study up on confusing sub-adult plumage patterns. It takes a bald eagle four or five molts to attain that clean, white-headed and -tailed plumage we all readily recognize, and which indicates the bird has attained breeding maturity. Until it does, however, it looks less like what we think of as an eagle and more like some large, generic hawk. An eagle under the age of five is generally dark all over with motley patches of white throughout the underwing and belly feathers. By its third year, the head begins to look white, but even a fourth molt bird may show a few black feathers in the head and tail, making it look a bit like an overgrown osprey.
As with many larger, slow-maturing birds, the bald eagle pairs for life and can live to be 20 or more. As early as next month, mated pairs will renew their courting and begin mending their nests. According to Charlie Todd, paired adult birds on the Maine coast generally linger in the vicinity of their nests year-round. Sub-adult eagles, however, may wander far and wide. Charlie has learned that eagles from Maine have been seen from maritime Canada to the Carolinas and inland as far west as Ohio. Younger birds wintering in Maine may have come from as far away as Michigan and Saskatchewan. Migration routes and wintering areas are used habitually by individual eagles, although once it gets here, a bird may still roam. Charlie recounted for me the story of one coastal Maine eagle that for reasons known only to itself spent a couple of days visiting the Connecticut coast. I couldn't help but wonder if the bird was looking for more abundant food sources or perhaps simply better company. But like many of us from Maine, it must have realized that there's no place like home, and it soon returned.
Archived Natural History Writing
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