Love is in the air



Warmer weather may coax striped skunks to wake up from their hibernation. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Warmer weather may coax striped skunks to wake up from their hibernation. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

This is courtship time for many of our native mammals, and love is in the air. This has been a strange winter with both freezing cold days and spring-like temperatures. When you wake up in the morning, the ground may be white with snow, and a few hours later, no snow at all. The little striped skunks living on our island normally sleep a lot in the colder months, but a warm spell may encourage them to wake up and look for something to eat. In severe winter temperatures, these black-and-white furry mammals stay in their winter dormancy. They eat a great deal in the fall and store up a good amount of fat so their bodies can rest at a slower rate during the colder months. They do not enter full hibernation. As the weather gets warmer and stays that way, they emerge and move about looking for a mate.

Many people wrinkle their noses at the thought of a skunk, for this mammal has a scent gland at the base of its tail: its only weapon against enemies. Skunks are not great runners and would not do well in a fight. The unpleasant scent stored in this special gland in their body is their hidden weapon and usually works unless the enemy is a car. When a skunk is hit by a car, it automatically releases the scent. When the skunk is in control, it has the ability to aim the scented liquid where it wants it to go in a space of a few feet. The spray can actually reach 25 feet. It usually deters the enemy.

Skunks come out when the weather is warm and look for a mate, otherwise they live pretty much alone, except for the females when they have young to care for and in the winter when several females may den together. Males are polygamous. Some people refer to skunks as polecats, but this is not accurate, for polecats are usually weasels or old world ferrets. There are others types of skunks, but the only one we have on this island is the striped skunk. From the time a baby skunk is born, it can spray.

The relationship between skunks and wild ducks is an interesting one. Skunks are very fond of eating snapping turtle eggs that have been laid and then buried in the soft sand at the edges of a road or some other such place. A skunk can smell where the nest is, then dig out maybe 50 eggs in the nest and have a feast. Foxes and raccoons also eat them. If the skunks and other mammals did not eat the majority of these tasty eggs, we would be overrun with snapping turtles in our local ponds. Snapping turtles have very few enemies when they get larger, and they would be a formidable legion of creatures eating any duck swimming on the water. The turtle is like a submarine, approaching the duck from below the surface and pulling it down to eat. It is an interesting chain of life happening here with the turtles, ducks and skunks. If one of them has a catastrophe, all the others are affected as well. It is but one of the many chains of life happening in our wildlife scene. Too many skunks killed on the road results in more snapping turtles living to be large adults and fewer ducks surviving to adulthood on our local lakes and ponds. There is no cuter sight than a mother skunk out for a stroll on a summer night with several look-alike small miniatures of herself in a row behind her.

Puffins are birds we don’t expect to see from shore at any time, but out on the “Big Rock,” a few miles off shore, there is a small colony of these bizarre-looking birds living each summer. Whaling and tourist boats make trips daily out to see them and other interesting off shore wildlife. I have been fortunate the last four years to have been able to visit the huge nesting colonies of puffins in Newfoundland where seabirds blacken the sky as they fly overhead near their colonies. It is a marvelous and thrilling sight to experience. Puffins do not always have that colorful bill you see on stuffed animals loved by so many children. The colorful bill is part of courtship and mating and drops off when that is finished.

I just learned recently that a puffin mystery regarding where they go in winter finally has been solved by the scientists studying them. After many years of difficulty studying this subject, it has been discovered that puffins winter in northern latitudes over a maze of underwater canyons and mountains southeast of Massachusetts. The puffins are only on land for four months for nesting: the rest of the year is spent on the water about 200 miles off the U.S. Continental shelf. They spend eight months on the water and in the air never touching land. They feed in the fish-rich waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, then veer south to overwinter in waters about 200 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.

The canyons in their underwater landscape go deeper than the Grand Canyon, and the mountain ranges stretch for hundreds of miles along the ocean floor. The puffins swim in a biodiverse zone populated with impressive areas of kelp forests, cold water coral, whales, dolphins and many different fish species. This is a fascinating story unfolding and adding even more interest to the wildlife of our seas. To read more about this go online and search “Where do Maine’s puffins go for the winter?”

A female goldeneye duck got into trouble this week. She was found walking in the road in Southwest Harbor on the weekend. The local wildlife rehabilitator in Town Hill is caring for her, and hopefully she will be able to be released. The goldeneye duck is one we regularly see in our local waters in the winter. The male is quite a beautiful bird. Look for a white-looking duck with a black back and a puffy green glossed head. It also has a noticeable large round white spot between the eye and the bill. The female is a grey duck with a white collar and a dark brown head. Look for them swimming in Southwest Harbor. They most often are in pairs. Sometimes you can see them in the library pond in Somesville as well.

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

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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