Nature: Nature sports the best costumes year-round



A spotted salamander.
GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Some of nature’s residents are dressed up for Halloween year-round. It’s hard for me not to think first of the spotted salamander in his sleek black skin decorated with large yellow spots! I saw a small dog in the Pemetic School’s Halloween Parade in Southwest Harbor one year sporting a salamander costume. It won first prize, in my book.

Quite often, people think of salamanders as strictly southern creatures, but even here in Maine, we have a few small members of the family. It is the spotted salamander that is most bizarre here on MDI. This colorful creature is handsome and safe to touch, but moisten your hands, for it needs to stay wet and cool in a moist environment. You would never see it relaxing in the sun. I think most people encounter them in a woodland setting near small wet areas or when one has fallen into a swimming pool, gotten lost in a cellar or fallen into a window well, getting temporarily trapped. Always take time to help it. Wet your hands first to make it as comfortable as possible. They don’t bite.

I’ve watched other creatures, such as gulls, trying to eat one at the shore only to find out that this salamander does not taste good. The spotted salamander has a poisonous gland behind its neck that repels predators. I watched a herring gull trying to eat one and I was surprised by the gull’s reactions. The bird tried shaking it, dipping it in the water to wash it but still couldn’t swallow it. No other gulls were trying to grab it away, as is often the case. Food fights are frequent occurrences with feeding gulls. Finally, the gull gave up on the salamander and it was abandoned and not eaten by anything. My friend and I also learned something new about salamander and gull behavior, and the gull went off looking for a new meal.
Some other creatures wear masks, such as the wood frog, racoon and shrike. The interesting shrike has a habit of placing its catch, be it mouse, bird or insect, on a sharp thorn in the style of old-time butchers in their shops. The shrike’s nickname is “butcherbird.” These birds visit us here from more northern areas.

I remember when evening grosbeaks first arrived in Connecticut in the 40s. All the native birds were very afraid of these bizarre-looking birds from the north. When a flock of grosbeaks landed on a feeder, all the other birds would scatter. At first, they were afraid to even share a feeder with the invaders. If you look at the evening grosbeak, you know that it is a big, bold and beautiful bird that demands respect! After a while, of course, the local birds learned how to coexist. Evening grosbeaks are now seen only occasionally and usually in evergreen woods at sunflower-laden feeders. All dressed up in white, yellow and black in great designs, they are a sight to behold. Flocks move around a lot and visit here erratically whenever they are in the area. Watch for them this winter.

Quite a few skunk have been seen moving about the Island. If one has been hurt or has encountered a barking dog, the pungent smell is noticeable. The anal gland of theirs is ready for trouble and danger, and some skunks are quick to use it. It’s their only defense. Late in the evening is a skunk’s “prowling time.” I’ve often met them prowling along the parking lots or sidewalks in Bar Harbor. A marvelous sight is that of a mother skunk with her several babies marching along behind her in single file. Just stop, be quiet and let them pass. I have been sprayed a few times, but only in unusual circumstances. Many years ago, my husband and I found a dead mother skunk on the road with three healthy babies, scared and hovering nearby, not understanding what had happened. We picked up the three baby skunks and put them on my lap and started home. All was fine until the Jeep went over a bump, jarred the babies and they all sprayed in my lap! I had to keep my head outside the window to breathe. The clothes I was wearing were burned. I stayed home for a few days, even after many baths, before being socially acceptable again. One year, a young skunk living freely in our house pulled the Christmas tree over on itself while trying to get a dog biscuit ornament. The little skunk just ran and hid. I learned not to put edible ornaments on the tree. Skunks do not always spray when scared, but it is their only weapon when seriously threatened. They are able to control it accurately and they don’t get the spray on themselves. Their body odor is like that of old roses or potpourri. Having a skunk de-scented is NEVER acceptable or a good idea. Except in very unusual circumstances, they are better off living life in the wild. Treat them with respect and all will be well.

In these COVID-19 locked-up-at-home days, I’ve found PBS to be great entertainment and an excellent source of information and value. Time watching is well spent for all ages. I recommend it!

Send questions or observations to [email protected] or call (207) 244-3742.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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