Nature: Myths about wooly bears

Buffleheads are back on MDI! A small flock was seen this week in Bar Harbor near Bar Island. These birds are right on schedule after nesting and raising their young far to the north. Most of the wintering buffleheads left here at the end of April or first part of May. These just seen in Bar Harbor are the first I have heard about this season. It is usually in late October they start to arrive.

Buffleheads are beautiful little ducks, the smallest of our sea ducks, and certainly brighten up a wintry day when they are seen in our harbors and along the local beaches. They have nested and raised their families this year in the woods far to the north. They often claim a small lake as they arrive in their nesting area and females are clearly in charge at this time.

The nest is usually in a hole in a tree, often an old woodpecker’s nest hole. She lines it with feathers and lays one egg a day for anywhere from 6 – 11 days. Her mate departs for another lake and she does all the incubating. After she has taken care of her duties and the young can fly she rejoins the male. The whole process takes about 120 days. Buffleheads spend the winter here in our harbors and it is a joy to see them each year. They are small, chunky ducks and fun to watch.

Red-breasted mergansers were also seen in Bar Harbor on the salt water. These fish-eating ducks are quite handsome and you can recognize them by the long, large and streamlined appearance on the water. When they fly they do so in single file and low over the water. Mergansers are excellent divers. Very few fish can escape this bird’s bill.

One noticeable thing about this merganser is its “crazy hairdo”–its green crest has a spiky and disheveled appearance.

Some friends of mine enjoyed eating puffballs this week. Always know exactly what mushroom you are eating and if in doubt don’t eat it. There are many mushrooms in our local woods that will make you very sick or actually cause your death. Enjoy their beauty and interesting shapes and colors but refrain from eating them unless you are an expert!

Many of our wildlife creatures, especially squirrels, can eat them, poisonous or not, with no ill effects. Humans cannot.

Woolly bears always are interesting creatures to find when you see them marching along as if on a quest. Folklore has it that the woolly bear can predict how cold a winter will be. Not so, says the experts. The color of the woolly bear is based on how long it has been feeding, its age and its species. The better the growing season the bigger it grows, and this results in narrower red-orange bands in the middle. Size also depends on how old it is, for a woolly bear sheds it skin about 6 times until fully grown.

The adult of a woolly bear is the tiger moth. There are 260 species of tiger moths each with different color patterns and hair coloring. Just enjoy the little beast and let it go on its way. The fur or fuzz on them does not protect them from the cold weather. The caterpillar actually creates its own antifreeze call glycerol so that the little beast freezes bit by bit until every bit except the interior is frozen. In the Arctic woolly bears live in a strange state of ‘slow motion’. They actually can survive in temperatures of minus 90 degrees F. Most caterpillars live from 2 to 4 weeks before becoming moths. When you see these little fellows moving along they are actually on the search for the perfect spot to curl up in and spend the winter. Chosen areas are usually under bark, a rock or a fallen log.

A friend of mine got to see black squirrels on a recent trip to Washington. These mammals look like the gray squirrel we regularly see here but they are a melanistic sub-group of the gray squirrel and there are small populations here and there in this country and in Canada. They are not a different species and they sometimes mate with gray squirrels. When this happens the young ones have brownish-black coats.

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

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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