Nature: Our island is starting to make its winter adjustments



Crows are such commonly seen birds we sometimes forget that they can be quite interesting. Often when you hear them doing a lot of cawing, it is because they have found a barred or great horned owl trying to get a little sleeping time and they are harassing it and trying to make it move. This usually works for the crows. The owl stays as long as it can stand the noise and bother before it searches for a more peaceful place to rest. It is an interesting activity to watch as other birds join in the harassment. Always investigate when you hear birds calling loudly somewhere in the woods and fields. You may find yourself being a witness to interesting behavior of wildlife. 

Cottongrass is very noticeable these days and it’s easy to see how it got its name. The white tufts on the end of the stems looks just like cotton tufts. Sometimes it is known as hare’s tail cottongrass (Eriophorum vaginatum). You can find cottongrass growing in many parts of the world. It is used for medicinal purposes and made for making paper, diapers for small children, as fire starters, for lamp wicks, insulation for clothing, for bedding and as a dressing for wounds. 

In the Arctic, cottongrass is eaten by caribou calves, snow geese, the heath butterfly and the black grouse. The grass-like leaves are very slender. The plants are rugged and can stand strong winds, low temperatures and long daylight hours. Take a second look at this plant growing here. 

Blue jays are particularly noisy in October. They’ve raised their families and they are free to roam and enjoy life for a few months from September to March. They are then birds of high spirits with a flamboyant air. On a cold winter’s morning, a troop may arrive at your feeder but soon individuals are flashing their tails and spreading their beautiful wings just showing off. Soon they get to eating busily. Their loud voice declares an intruder nearby or danger lurking, and all the other birds pay attention to their warning cries. They are one of our most beautiful birds in blue and white. Sometimes we forget that! 

October is the month when you may get to see great numbers of black ducks on the salt water in our bays and harbors. Hadley Point Beach is a good place to look for them. Look his up on your island map. You should check this area out frequently all winter and you’ll surely see some interesting birds there.  

The black duck is, as its name implies, a black duck on the salt water and often seen in large flocks. It looks like a black mallard duck. Most everyone knows a mallard duck, for they live on local ponds and in public parks all over. They are quite colorful, especially the male with his green head and yellow bill! 

When I was in elementary school, my favorite after-school place was the local bird sanctuary in New Canaan, Conn. The naturalist there was very good at making everything we saw there seem so special. One year a mallard duck and a black duck shared a nest and later shared the chore of caring for the young and teaching them about being a duck. The females took turns sitting on the eggs during incubation and later teaching the ducklings where to find food and anything else they needed to learn.  

A New York game warden told us on one of his visits to our house that even with no parental guidance, newborn ducklings actually have a 50/50 chance of survival once they get into a pond. I found that interesting. 

On the water, black duck sexes look alike and their plumage is a sooty black color. They are impressive to see here in large numbers. The winter ducks seen here on the salt water are often very fascinating and some begin their spring courtship in our local harbors. Enjoy watching them from the warmth of your car! Get a park list of the birds seen on this island, details on when they arrive or leave and other helpful information. 

As winter progresses, shrikes are apt to arrive. Bohemian waxwings may show up some day along with the more familiar cedar waxwings. My most amusing sight of waxwings was a flock eating the fermented berries outside the town offices in Ellsworth. The waxwings had consumed so many fermented berries that they were unable to fly! They just sat inebriated on the ground until the effects wore off. 

A friend came across some very interesting plants recently in the woods. They are very often called Indian pipes but are also known as ghost pipes for they grow like upside down white pipes. They are a ghostly white and appear to be made of wax when in their most beautiful stage. They usually are found in July and August. This plant is completely devoid of chlorophyll, yet its strange succulent-looking flower produces numerous seeds. Where you find one, you’ll usually find more. The pipe grows, straightens up and turns black. It will also turn black if picked. The matted roots of the ghost flower prey on either the juices of living plants or the decaying matter of dead ones. The plant is most abundant during wet summers. Occasionally you will find one pink or rosy in color. They are very interesting to see. 

Watch for migrating birds along the shore and enjoy whatever is happening in the out of doors as we head into fall and winter and make adjustments to living on a Maine island. 

Send any questions or observation to [email protected]. 

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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