Nature: Newts can remain teenagers for years

February is living up to its reputation for fickle weather — cold, warm, clear, snowy, rainy, sunny and icy roads.

Fat robins usually arrive from the south this month and feed on rosehips. Geese gather together at the Trenton Bridge. Red-spotted newts may appear in minnow traps.

Newts are interesting little salamanders but not so well known as the flamboyant spotted salamanders with their black bodies liberally covered with large yellow spots. The eastern newt has an interesting life and can be only in the water for awhile, and yet at another stage it lives on land. Sometimes it skips one of the transformations and stays on land or in the water.

If the water in a pond dries up, the brownish adult newts will revert to red efts that walk around in the woods. In the red eft stage the newt is bright reddish-orange. It is toxic and the warm, bright colors warn other predators to leave it alone.

Sometimes the red eft stage is skipped and the newt stays in the water as a mature aquatic adult. It is a very interesting creature on our island wherever you find it. When in the sub-adult land stage, an eft may stay on land for several years.

There are times on a warm rainy spring evening when hundreds of efts will cross back roads near water, and that is a sight to see! Unfortunately at such times many get killed, as some drivers don’t see them. Be aware of this happening when spring arrives and watch for them. It is a very interesting sight. Fishermen frequently find red efts in their minnow traps.

If you are out exploring in the west woods you may come upon stoneflies. They are active along the edges of our local streams. They look a bit like very large mosquitoes, as their antennae are long and threadlike. These creatures are important insects for fly fishermen, who use artificial flies to mimic them to lure and catch elusive trout. Adults stoneflies emerge in February and many fly about at night around outdoor lights.

Courtship for horned owls is well underway, and if a pair live nearby you should be able to hear their low repetitive hoots as they express their love. I think their call sounds like a very large dog barking in the distance using a pattern of four to seven deep hoots for each cycle. The call definitely has a rhythm.

Great horned owls build a nest high in a big tree and the female often has to sit in a snowstorm to keep her eggs warm. One year up in Corea, a pair of these owls refurbished an old osprey nest on a pole right next to the road and it was great fun to watch them so easily from the car, which makes a good blind. They don’t see you in the car but you have a good view of them.

These owls are more often heard than seen wherever they live, even though they are large birds. Think of them as tall as the distance between your elbow and the tips of your fingers. One good way to be aware of their presence is to listen for the sound of crows and ravens making a big fuss somewhere. This often indicates that a horned owl is trying to rest during the day in a tree and the crows and ravens are harassing it so that it leaves the area. The owl will put up with the nuisance for just so long and then fly off to a new, more secluded resting place.

This large owl has powerful feet for grabbing and holding onto its prey, and its bill is well adapted for tearing animals apart into bite-sized pieces. Later, the indigestible parts like fur, feathers and bones are regurgitated in pellets under the perch where the owl has eaten its meals. By examining these pellets (which are dry and not at all unpleasant) scientists can learn what the owl is eating. The nickname for the great horned owl is “tiger of the night.”

The bird is a superb hunter, eating any creature up to the size of a skunk or porcupine that might be roaming about at night. Snowshoe hare, squirrels and rats are its regular meals. They are beautiful owls and live on this island year-round.

One of our most magnificent falcons, the gyrfalcon, may visit the island this month. This hawk is often described as an “Arctic Loner.” It is a rare sight except perhaps at nesting time. Falcons prey on other birds and they overtake them at high speed. They are birds of the very far north! Occasionally one will come into this area, but they have been reported on MDI less than five times.

Falcons of other sorts, however, are seen over MDI in certain months. They are the American kestrel, the peregrine and the merlin. Of these it is the colorful kestrel that we see regularly in the summer sitting on poles and wires along the road and hunting over roadside fields for rodents, grasshoppers, mice and insects.

Send any questions, observations or photos to me at [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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