Nature: For the birds

My e-mail frequently has photos of plants and wildlife attached for identification. Some I recognize right away and others often send me on a search and I often seek help from ‘my expert’ friends. Just recently I received a photo of a flower taken in the Long Pond area. It turned out to be an orchid called helleborine or Epipactus helleborine. It is uncommon on this island.

This orchid grows in the woods and thickets as well as on roadside banks. It is not as spectacular as some orchids but still quite beautiful when you look at it closely. Look at the leaves especially for they clasp the stem at the base. The small white flowers are arranged along the stem in a loose elongated cluster. There is a nice drawing of it in Marilyn J. Dwelley’s “Summer and Fall Wildflowers of New England.” She has three excellent books that I use a lot for identification. They are “Spring Wildflowers,” “Summer and Fall Wildflowers,” and “Trees and Shrubs.” Mine are well used. The drawings and text are very helpful. Also make use of all the internet sites showing flowers of this area.

Take advantage of the opportunities to see sea birds now from shore and from tour boats. Some possibilities are fulmars, petrels, shearwaters, and gannets to mention a few. Many birds spend their entire lives on or around the sea. The gull-like Atlantic Fulmar is one of the beautiful birds you may see. This bird is especially interesting for it has a tube nose well adapted to filter excess salt from the blood so they drink sea water. Fulmars, shearwater and petrels can also do this and are tube nosed birds.

They all spend a larger part of their lives at sea, only coming to land to nest. They feed on plankton, and fish. It is sometimes possible to step out on a foggy night and to hear the storm petrels moving by overhead. A favorite nickname for the petrel is Mother Carey’s Chickens. When visibility is ‘zero’ they may fly over land but the rest of the time they are on the sea. Some of these birds nest on our outer islands like Big and Little Duck the two islands you can see from Seawall. Both are protected bird islands.

Petrels are the smallest of our sea birds and their flight is erratic. If you go on a whale watching trip, watch for them over the water. I like watching them skim low over the water in their distinctive flight following the contour of the waves created by the ship you are on. Their feet often touch lightly on the water as they pass by.

Petrels are unusual when they nest. They dig burrows in the soil wherever they can and they take turns incubating. Males seem to incubate during the day and females at night. It is believed they can see well both in the day and night which is a rare gift among birds.

Incubation and the fledgling process takes about 98 days. Once the young birds leave the nest the rest of their lives is lived on or over the sea. You should never walk in an area where these birds nest for you can easily crush their tunnels and kill them and never know it. They feed on marine creatures they glean from the water. Watch for them when you are out in a boat these days.

I have had the privilege of seeing them at their nesting colonies in Newfoundland and could actually detect the oily smell that they have on their feathers. Crows, ravens and gulls prey on them.

Shorebirds are moving in small groups as they are already migrating, so have your binoculars and bird book in hand so you can identify them if you want to. Nighthawks are also on the move. The bird is not really a hawk but is a bug eating cousin of the whip-poor-will. In spite of its name the nighthawk flies in the late afternoon and evening looking for insects to catch in its big mouth. The bird’s mouth is really enormous, as it opens far back under the ears! The bird actually flies around with its big mouth open and eats whatever comes along. The nighthawks’ wings are close to 2 feet long and the bird appears in flight as a slim-winged dark bird flying erratically about. On each wing you can often spot the broad white patch which, when viewed against the night sky, looks like a hole or window in the wings.

The nighthawk migration ranges over an enormous area from South America to the Arctic Ocean but the bird breeds only from the Gulf States northward. There are several nighthawk nesting records from MDI. These birds do not actually build a nest. The female merely lays her eggs on bare ground, a rock or gravel or gravelly roof top. With her dark coloring she all but disappears. Unlike most birds the nighthawks sits lengthwise on a branch when resting and not crosswise as most birds do. The sound the bird makes as it hunts for food at twilight has been described as sounding like a nasal ‘Bronx cheer’.

There is a lot of activity now in the natural world and wonderful things to see so be sure to be out and about looking and enjoying it all if you can.

Send any questions, photos or observations to [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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