American Goldfinch perched on thistle flower. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Nature: Cheerful birds whistle for thistle 



Hawk flights in September over this island can be spectacular. Regularly this month, hawk watchers climb the local mountains and find their favorite spots from which to watch this amazing migration. Take a picnic lunch in your pack and spend the day on one of the local mountains. Cadillac is one favorite spot and Beech Mountain is another good destination. The hawk migration is an annual event. 

With nesting over, many hawk species fly to warmer parts of the country for the winter. The list is long and, among others, includes ospreysbroadwinged hawkskestrelsmerlin and peregrine. As with all birds, they don’t always follow the ‘rules’ you expect them to. I always have my Birds of Acadia National Park checklist nearby to consult. 

When identifying hawks, the first thing to do is to learn their shapes just as you would an airplane. Then you put the hawks in their group types, buteosaccipiters and falcons. Buteos are large hawks with broad wings and broad, rounded tails. They have a habit of soaring in wide circles in the air. Accipiters are hawks with short, rounded wings and long tails. They usually fly with short, quick wing beats, then a sail. Falcons are streamlined hawks with long, pointed wings, long tails and several, short, quick wing strokes.  

After you have put the birds you’ve seen in the right category, you look for finer points to identify it with the help of a field guide to birds. It is interesting solving these mysteries and not always easy!  I have success if I see the bird well and jot down the various important points “IF” I can see them. So many times people send me photographs to identify but some important feature is missing or not visible. The bird’s tail might not show or its head is turned away or the light is not right. Even the experts I consult sometimes tell me, “It might be a….but I can’t see the end of the tail or the pattern of the bird’s breast feathers. Get as many clues as you can, description, where seen, what it was doing and time of year. Sometimes you will just have to call it an ‘UNIDENT’ (unidentified bird). As you may have noticed, on this list color is the least important.  

Spring is the time to watch warblers for their colors are bright and patterns easy to recognize. In the fall, immature birds are quite confusing and the parents are not in full breeding plumage. Shore birds, too, are more difficult to identify. Just enjoy seeing them along the shore or looking for food in a marsh. You don’t always have to know exactly what it is called to enjoy seeing shore birds. 

When an unusual bird comes to your feeder, try to get a good photo. Most everyone now-a-days has a camera on a phone handy and photographs can be helpful. If you can’t identify what you’ve seen, send me the photo and I’ll reach out to my experts for help and let you know. It’s a good winter sport! 

Monarch butterflies still are looking for flowers in my garden but the deer roaming about my area got to them first and ate them! Monarchs are truly amazing. They weigh approximately onefifteenth of an ounce yet they manage to fly thousands of miles to their wintering grounds in Mexico. I hope you all have seen the wonderful ‘spy cam creature’ nature programs on your computer for they have in their list of fantastic photos a film taken by a ‘mechanical hummingbird’ (that looks very real) flying about in the huge monarch colony in Mexico. It was said to be the first photos taken inside such a colony and it was VERY spectacular.  

Sometimes the branches of the trees break with the weight of the butterflies. Considering each butterfly weighs onefifteenth of an ounce, this is truly amazing! See if you can track this program down and watch it. 

Most birds start their families in the spring but goldfinches wait until September so you can see baby goldfinches now. They are seed eaters and primarily vegetarians. Their personalities are cheerfulgoldfinches never seem downhearted. Two nicknames for them are ‘thistlebird‘ and ‘wild canary. Males in breeding plumage are black and gold and very beautiful. They are fun to see clinging to a thistle head or dandelion seed head. They will be around all winter and often keep company with nuthatcheschickadeessiskinsbrown creepers and downy and hairy woodpeckers. In the winter, male and females look alike. 

Look for a large yellow flower growing along the shore now. It looks like a giant dandelion and is called a sow thistleIt’s tall, prickly to touch but quite lovely to look at. The beautiful brown and orange painted lady butterfly likes all thistles! 

Enjoy the out-of-doors as much as possible these days of social distancing. Stay well and enjoy the natural world around you on MDI. 

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

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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