Nature: Prime hawk watching days are coming soon

A male American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) shows off its summer yellow and gold. GETTY PHOTOS IMAGE

September is a colorful month when trees start to change colors. Apple trees are laden with fruit and hawks and many other birds are already migrating. Many goldfinches nest late and are busy now with nesting duties.

Goldfinches build a nice little tree nest lined with thistledown, grasses, strips of bark and moss. The young are fed largely on semi-digested seeds that the parent birds put directly into their mouths.

You can see goldfinches throughout the year on Mount Desert Island. In the winter, the males change from their bright yellow-and-black plumage to more subdued colors and look more like the females. In the summer, you might find goldfinches in Newfoundland. But in the winter, there is a general move southward, even though some are seen here all winter. Mixed flocks of goldfinches, chickadees, kinglets, brown creepers and woodpeckers often feed together in the fields and thickets during the winter.

Those of you getting out on the water may be seeing some interesting sea birds. One of my special birds to see when out on the water is the Leach’s petrel. I first got to see these birds in Maine when I was a student at the Maine Audubon Camp on Hog Island. I got an even better view at their nesting spots on one of the islands within sight of MDI. Their nest is underground. Petrels only come to land to nest. The rest of their life is on or over the sea. Many sailors used to call them ‘Mother Carey’s chickens.’

Leach’s petrel.

The Leach’s petrel digs a burrow, maybe 2 or 3 feet long, in the soft duff of the forest on many of the outer remote islands. They cannot survive where there are burrowing predators. Such a nesting island is a busy one at night for the parent birds come and go about their nesting and feeding duties – sort of a changing of the guard routine until the family is raised and ready for their life at sea. Their clucking, cooing and gurgling sounds in greeting each other are pleasant to hear in the dark or on a moonlight night.

I found a wing once while visiting a seashore field where there had been a petrel colony in Newfoundland. As is my custom, I just had to pick up the wing left on the ground where a petrel had been caught by a predator. As I held it in my hand, I could smell that oily odor that this bird has. It’s not unpleasant but it did identify the owner of the wing for me right away.

The petrels fly and flutter over the waves like feathered butterflies. If you are on an outer island, be respectful during a nesting season and don’t walk and explore in the woods or fields. You could easily kill these nesting birds with your feet or at least cause their tunnels to collapse!

White flowers seem to have burst into bloom everywhere this past week on this island. The fall asters are exceptionally lush. The aster family is a big one and August and September are prime months for seeing them. Although many are white right now, there will be blue, purple, pink and yellow before the season is over and most colors disappear.

Asters are a widespread group with some 200 species found in North America. Their tightly packed, tiny disk flowers put them into the composite family that also includes the common daisy and the black-eyed Susan.

Red-tailed hawk.

Hawk watching is an activity in the bird world that you might like to participate in these fall days coming up. Our island is right on a major flight line and our mountains are great places from which to observe the whole scene. Often the national park has naturalists on some of the mountains to help you with identification.

When you watch hawks on migration, it’s a bit like identifying airplanes. Learn the various shapes, use binoculars and have a book handy as you try to identify the different kinds. Many different hawks migrate south for the winter and it’s a good time to try and learn them or watch the amazing flights that do occur. It’s a great activity for all ages!

Send any questions or observations to [email protected].

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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