Bucks driven by hormones

It’s that time of year again. Deer are rubbing their antlers on tree trunks to get rid of the velvet and then on with courtship. Starting usually in August, our native white-tailed deer go into what is called the “rut” or breeding season. Most of the breeding occurs in November. Each winter, the male deer, or buck, casts off his antlers and grow new ones encased in velvet, or soft hair. This stays on during the summer months as the antlers grow and harden. When this process has finished, the velvet dries and is rubbed off. A neighbor pointed out a small tree on my property where this has been going on this week. All the bark had been rubbed off. This activity of the buck is all directed by the buck’s hormone levels, and these hormones are at their highest level at this time. Our Maine woods are alive with deer activity now, and if you are looking carefully as you walk about, you’ll be able to find many trees where the velvet has been rubbed off. Deer are usually feisty and cranky at this season, so don’t get too close if you meet one in the woods.

The gestation period is between 190 and 210 days, so the young are born in early spring or summer when they have the best chance for survival. A friend of mine saw one doe give birth to her twin fawns in the snow. This is quite common in a late spring snowstorm. In the wild, their life span is about six years. Their enemies are man, cars, predators and diseases.

During a harsh winter, they will browse on twigs and buds of any woody shrubs and trees they can find and reach. They eat a lot and then retreat into cover to finish digesting their food. They are herbivores, and their diet varies with the seasons. White-tailed deer are commonly seen all over this island.

Early morning walks are very nice, and those early risers who are out and about get rewarded by special experiences at the start of a new day. A friend this week was out early near the Union River and got to see some unusual large shore birds called marbled godwits. These cinnamon-colored sandpipers are almost as large as herring gulls, and they have a very long slightly turned up bill that is pink at the base. Marbled godwits have traveled a long way to be seen along our coastal areas. They breed on the moist grasslands of Canada and then go to the coast and sometimes down into South America a little bit.

When these birds were seen, they were resting and feeding as is their custom on the mud flats and in shallow water. When feeding, they probe their long bills down deep, even submerging their heads to find food in the form of crustaceans, marine worms or mollusks. In fresh water, they pick out insects, sedge pondweeds, roots and seeds. They find most of their food by touch. A gull flew at this flock on the Union River and caused the godwits to take off at high speed, leaving the bullying gull “in the dust” as it was told to me. I would like to have seen these visiting birds. They are on the National Park rare bird list, containing those birds reported here fewer than five times.

Early morning golfers may get views of some other interesting migrating shore birds. Hudsonian curlew or whimbrel could be feeding then in such open areas for it reminds them a little of home. This bird has a very long down-curved bill. It is one of many just passing through on their migration south.

When you are out in the woods and fields these days, watch for mushrooms, especially, the death angel or amanita virosa. These mushrooms are very beautiful, but if you take one bite, you are in big trouble, most likely death. Take only pictures of this handsome but poisonous mushroom. Death angel usually grows in dark, wooded haunts. Hanging down from each stem like a shroud is a characteristic veil, and the underground stems end with a cup-like volva at the base. Don’t touch it when you are looking at it. The deadly toxin in the death angel is named alpha-amanitin, and it destroys RNA polymerase, a critical liver enzyme. Unfortunately, some edible mushrooms do resemble the death angel, so only expert mushroom hunters should even think about collecting them.

After the last storm we experienced was a good time to go out and look for interesting things on our local beaches and rocky shores. All sorts of seldom-seen objects and creatures get washed in by the powerful waves and churning seas. The high surf, wind and rain bring sea birds close to shore as well, and you might even find a small sea bird called a dovekie waddling helplessly around in confusion, for dovekies are incapable of taking off from land. If they are not hurt in any way, you can just pick them up and take them to the sea. Many get killed in severe storms.

One year, hundreds of sea cucumbers were washed in near Seawall. These invertebrate animals have brown, leathery bodies with five bands of tube feet. They also have 10 retractable, branching tentacles that they use to capture plankton. They are very odd looking, reminding me of a nightmarish cucumber. In some cultures, they are readily eaten. Chinese chefs use them to prepare epicurean stew and soups. However tasty they might be, they can make themselves look like hotdogs, fat worms or cucumbers. To escape their enemies, they eject the whole of their internal organs. This does act as a diversion, and in a few weeks, the cucumber has grown new organs. They also have the ability to turn themselves inside out if the water in which they are living is too stale for them. They are truly strange sea creatures but interesting to find on our shores.

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.


Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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