New spring migrants arrive every day, and new plants are coming in woods and fields. Spring is moving along and very welcome here on Mount Desert Island. The leaves of Canada mayflower are poking up, and coltsfoot is in bloom, as is leatherleaf. This last mentioned leatherleaf, Chamaedaphne calyculata, is really an evergreen shrub growing on the island in our bogs. It is about 3 feet high and forms thickets. Its small, bell-shaped flowers hang from the base of the narrow, oblong, upturned leaves. You can see this shrub from any road that runs close to boggy places. There is a location between Seawall and Ship Harbor where it can be seen easily.
Coltsfoot is a bright yellow plant superficially resembling a dandelion, but it comes up much earlier than dandelions do. Coltsfoot thrives in poor soil and often brings bright color to roadside ditches where nothing else will grow. Look for it as you drive about the island. Marsh marigold, or swamp buttercup, may be in bloom, and the blossoms are bright yellow. Since this flower likes its “feet” wet, you’ll find it in wet ditches, marshes and wet meadows, along fast-moving streams and any low, wet ground. Its waxy, green leaves are heart-shaped and very shiny.
Marsh marigolds, also called “cowslips,” depend mainly on small bees and beelike flies for fertilization. Nectar secreted on the sides of each of the many carpels lures a conscientious bee all around the center. Bumblebees, honey bees, mining bees and flies also feast on this early blooming beauty. When driving south in the spring on our large highways, you often see marsh marigold’s bright yellow blossoms in streams and wet places.
Watch also for large patches of bluets, or Quaker ladies, on lawns and field areas. This member of the madder family makes the ground look as if it were once again covered with snow. Carpets of bluets and blue violets growing together are very lovely. Basal leaves form a rosette. The blossoms are set on top of the stems, where they nod in bud and stand erect in bloom. These blossoms are very sensitive to atmospheric conditions; at night and in rainy weather, the blossoms bend down, but when the sun comes out, they stand erect again. They are pollinated by the many insects visiting them.
Two beautiful migrants arrived at a feeding station on Islesford this week. Both the northern oriole (formerly the Baltimore oriole) and the orchard oriole were seen. I think most people have little trouble identifying a male Northern oriole with its black hood and bright orange body. The Orchard oriole has a black hood, but the belly and rump are reddish. Females sometimes are confusing in terms of their coloring, and you often know who they are by the male nearby. Seeing a female alone, I go to my Sibley bird guide, for he has excellent illustrations of males, females and immature birds of all species.
Another interesting bird seen this on Islesford this week was a blue grosbeak. Seen in the right light, the blue grosbeak is an outstanding bird, for its feathers are dark blue all over with reddish wing bars and very beautiful. If seen at different angles, the colors are not as bright, and you can be confused. Immatures in the spring may be blue in patches, and this is interesting to see.
I haven’t seen a brown thrasher in several years, but one was spotted recently. They are listed as uncommon here but seen regularly in small numbers. They are grouped in the bird group called “mimics,” along with the gray catbird and the northern mockingbird. Thrashers are quite big, measuring 11 inches, and they have a long downcurved bill. Their body is a rufous brown, and the belly and tail are heavily streaked. They are not difficult to recognize. The brown thrasher is our only thrasher seen throughout the east. Since at least one is in the area, keep watch for it.
As of the May 5, long-tailed ducks were still being seen, but most of these northerners should be gone by the end of the month. They go to the tundra lakes to nest.
A neighbor of mine sent me a recording she made in her yard one night this week. They had been hearing this call and wondered what it was. The bird turned out to be a saw-whet owl, one of our resident owls here on MDI. This small owl makes a sound just like a big truck backing up. The sound is repetitive. The birds also make some other sounds that you can hear if you go on the Cornell University birding site and look for sounds of birds. This is a great resource. Take a recording of the bird you are hearing with your cell phone and send it to me or the university, and you’ll be able to find out what you’re are hearing. Describing a sound in words presents a real mystery.
Enjoy all the wonders of nature on our island as spring arrives and a new warmer season begins.