Nature: The riddle of the sphinx 



Young ravens call loudly in my woods these days. Their raucous voices are begging their parents for food even though they are no longer baby birds. Nesting ravens are noisy, but I like them a lot. They are smart birds. Their jetblack feathers are beautiful, and they have great personalities and love a little fun. Ravens are larger than crows. I think of them as ‘out-sized’ crows. Instead of cawing they croak!  

Ravens nest on the island in the woods or maybe on rocky ledges near the sea. A pair one year had a nest on a narrow ledge in Northeast Harbor that was easy to see from the road. Each year ravens nest in my woods. Ravens mate for life and are very devoted to their broods of five or six each year. The parents share the duties of incubation. They are superb fliers and some of their flying looks as if it just for fun! 

Crows and ravens are both scavengers for roadkill and earlymorning drivers are witness to them feeding on nightly road kills. They do us a service! 

A friend showed me a great photo of a milk snake his son had caught this week in his yard. We only have few snakes on this island (only five species) and none are poisonous. I particularly like snakes and I have not seen a milk snake on MDI for years. It is a beautiful snake and the largest to be found on MDI. Any snake on this island is harmless. It is a shy snake and often hides in dense vegetation or beneath dead trees on the forest floor. Its color and variegated pattern make it inconspicuous to see easily in the woods. 

The name milk snake is misleading for it has nothing to do with milk. It eats mostly mice, as well as other small mammals, snakes, bird eggs and amphibians. Milk snakes usually forage at night. 

This is a very colorful snake. It is slender with a light base color of grass and strongly marked with brown and reddish blotches in three to five rows. The belly looks like a black and white checkerboard pattern. Milk snakes have keeled scales. Don’t be afraid of it, don’t kill it and just enjoy the experience. Take a photo and share it with me! 

If you are interested in Maine amphibians and reptiles, you should get a book by that name put out by the University of Maine Press. It’s excellent and full of information.  

An email question about the browntailed moth that can only be found on the coast of Maine and Cape Cod came to me this week. It is an invasive species and a human health concern for it has tiny poisonous hairs that cause dermatitis on some people that is similar to poison ivy. I’ve always followed the rule not to touch caterpillars unless you know for sure about them. 

The adults emerge in July and August and their peak activity is around lights at night between 10 p.m. and midnight. It is the hair on the caterpillar that can be troublesomeThe hair is not on the moth. 

Moths in general are really quite interesting. They come in all shapes and sizes. There is one that is the size of a dinner plate! I think one of the largest to see on this island is the beautiful Luna moth. It only has a short life when it looks like a lovely green ‘ballerina.‘ The Luna moth is one of the moths that emerges from the cocoon ready to mate. It doesn’t need a mouth for its life is very short. As the experts say, “If you don’t plan on eating there is no point in developing a mouth.” The adult Luna only lives a few days and dies soon after mating. 

Not all moths eat, but they are often eaten. They are rich in protein and they are consumed by birds, bats, frogs, lizards, small mammals and some people! 

In my small butterfly garden that my daughter made for me, I had a visit from a hummingbird moth, which is a member of the sphinx moth family. This strange little creature looks at first like a very small hummingbird as it hovers over a blossom. It is not a hummingbird, but it acts like one, and it’s fascinating to see them feeding at the flowers. They commonly come to flowers here on MDI. Watch for them. They sometimes are called hawk moths and they can be found from Texas and Florida to Maine and Alaska! 

When these moths are in the caterpillar stage, they are called horn worms. In the ‘hummingbird’ stage, they are useful in pollination. The moth feeds through a proboscis, a long strawlike tube kept curled under the head when not in use. You may think of moths as night creatures, but the sphinx moths are also active in the daytime. They are easier to photograph than hummingbirds, so have your camera ready. 

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

 

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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