As August races to a close, I had my first reports of egrets seen at the head of this island. Normally, the first reports I get are from the Bass Harbor Marsh, a favorite feeding place for these beautiful birds visiting from the south. Large, white wading birds always attract attention. If the white bird you see these days is almost the same size as a great blue heron with black legs and a yellow bill, it is the great egret. The snowy egret is much smaller and has a dark bill and golden feet. Both of these birds wander into this area in late summer and are frequently seen in island marshes and creeks. They nest in Florida, but after the nesting season individuals wander north, and we’re treated to the sight of them. In Florida, they are seen regularly near water and even along the roadside as they forage for food in wet ditches or stand about near docks and fishing areas. They are handsome birds.
Yellowlegs are now poking their bills in the mud searching for food in local wet areas near the shore. This shorebird is easy to recognize, for it is a tall sandpiper with noticeable long yellow legs and a long bill. It also has the habit of doing a lot of bobbing when it feeds. The yellowlegs is one of the largest and most striking of the shore birds. Its whistle is loud and insistent. Listen for them when you are out and about along the shores these days.
A phone call this week about slugs sent me to my books and the Internet. Slugs are strange little creatures and not always welcome in gardens. Dogs sometimes like to eat them, and they get sick. The gray garden slug is the most common and most destructive. It is about three-quarters of an inch long and varies in color from whitish yellow to nearly black with brown specks and mottling. The spotted garden slug or giant slug can be from 3-7 inches long. This one is common along the coast. The yellowish mantle usually has three rows of black spots that continue to the end of its body.
The slug that prompted the question turned out to be a leopard slug, an introduced species that is now quite common. They grow to 4 inches. The overall color is grayish yellow with black spots or bands, and they are often wrinkled. Leopard slugs have two long and two short tentacles on their heads. You are apt to find them in damp shady places in fields, woods and gardens. During the daylight, they hide under logs, old wood and such places. They are mostly nocturnal but often come out on rainy days. They may not be lovable, but they are interesting.
Slugs are hermaphroditic, meaning that their hundreds of eggs are laid by both males and females. The word “slime” comes into the conversation when talking about slugs, for they use a trail of slime to hang onto branches after mating. At night, they glide along a cushion of slime. The next night, they use this trail to find the same feeding spot.
Leopard slugs eat the leaves, flowers and fruits of plants, mushrooms, carrion and other slugs. They themselves have many predators, such as turtles, beetles, toads, flies, birds, skunks, chipmunks, wild turkeys and many others. They are not always welcome in a garden, but they do eat some plants that are considered weeds. When I was watching birds in Ireland many years ago, I saw my first giant black slug on the Cliffs of Mohr. It was impressive and looked as if it were made of licorice.
An ocean sunfish was reported seen from one of the tour boats operating in the waters around our island last week. This is a very impressive creature living in the ocean. They are famous for being the largest bony fish in the world. Some have weighed in at 5,000 pounds. They are big creatures and can be 10 feet long, 14 feet up and down across the fin. As you might expect, they are ponderous swimmers. They don’t have a tail. Their preferred food is jellyfish.
Although ocean sunfish prefer warmer tropical waters, they do appear in the Atlantic, Pacific, Mediterranean and India Oceans. They are very difficult to keep in an aquarium, so only a few in the world display them. I was lucky enough to see them in Portugal at the Lisbon Aquarium, and they were very impressive and very beautiful. I’ve also seen them in our Maine waters when on field trips with the College of the Atlantic. The ocean sunfish was on its side and did look dead, but it was very alive. They are often seen lying on their sides at the surface, sometimes flapping their dorsal fin. This behavior may attract birds from above or fish from below in order to clean them of parasites on their skin. After a long dive in the cold water, they may come to the surface to warm up and recharge their oxygen stores. The ocean sunfish is not dangerous to humans, and it is very interesting to see! Their biggest life threats are being hit by boats or being caught in fishing gear. Since they eat jellyfish, they are also in danger from all the plastics that get into the water and sometimes look like jellyfish floating about. Such plastics kill many sea turtles.
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.