Shorter days elicit unusual behavior



There is a hint of fall in the air these days and nights, and it’s good to get out and enjoy any nice day coming our way as October gives way to November once again. Warm days and nights now prompt springtime behavior in many creatures. A few peepers may call, and sometimes eagles do courtship antics. A friend told me of watching eagles doing just that with one right side up and with the other eagle upside down under the first one. Later on the ground, he watched as the two birds strutted around, spread their large wings and quivered in front of each other. The length of day now is like that of spring and gives wildlife a few brief thoughts of warm weather and springtime courtship activities.

Canada geese are flying by as they migrate, often honking as they go. I love this sound floating down from the sky, and I always take time to watch and listen. These large geese fly in that well-known v-shaped formation or sometimes in a long, single, sloping line. On their long journeys, they exchange leaders from time to time. The leaders honk to the flock and the flock honks back in response. The greatest movement of these geese takes place through October and into the first part of November.

Guillemots are now in the process of changing their plumage from summer to winter, and when the change is complete, they will appear like new birds out on the salt water. All during the summer, this bird is one of our dark, duck-like sea birds with a stubby neck, pointed bill and large white wing patches. Now as winter approaches, its body changes to a salt-and-pepper coloring but still with the white wing patches. No matter what their plumage, however, when a bird scratches it head or yawns, you get to see the scarlet lining of its throat or its matching red feet.

The immature male eider may look like a new species as well until it completes its adult plumage. To identify them regardless of coloring, note their large size, long sloping bill and the company they keep. Large flocks including mature adult males, and the darker females have many juveniles in changing plumages mixed in with them. They are commonly seen off the Seawall in Manset.

Old squaws (or long-tailed ducks, as they are now called) return to this area in October along with buffleheads, golden eyes and grebes, so keep watch along our shores now for interesting birds.

Halloween is a time for costumes, but one native salamander living on this island is always dressed in an outlandish costume. That is the spotted salamander sporting a black skin with bright yellow spots, and specimens can be nearly 8 inches long.

These harmless creatures feed at night on earthworms, ants, beetles, moths, cutworms and just about any crawling creature. Sometimes one falls in a window well, new ditch or deep hole, and you should then lift it out of such a predicament and send it on its way. They do not bite. Handling a salamander ought to be done with wet or moist hands if at all possible, for they are in big trouble if they dry out. Salamanders breathe through the skin, and they cannot do so if they are dry. Although salamanders usually hibernate in burrows in the winter, fishermen may see a few salamanders swimming slowly beneath the frozen water of our ponds and lakes.

A big black bug flew into a friend’s back one evening and really startled him. It did look menacing, and he had no idea what it was. After it arrived at my house in a sealed jar, I identified it as a toe biter or giant water bug. This is a wide, flat-bodied insect with powerful grasping forelegs and hind legs formed for vigorous swimming; its total length is from 1-2 inches. If you find one of these bugs, be careful about touching it, for their beaks give a hard, painful bite. Toe biters live in our fresh water ponds and lakes and they prey on insects, snails, fish, frogs and other amphibians. They have a habit of flying to strong lights at night, thus giving them their other name of ‘electric light bug’. In China, there is a giant water bug that is cooked and eaten as a delicacy. Some members of my family have been known to eat June bugs and grasshoppers. As we all know, food is not always just what we in this country are used to. At one time, lobsters were considered ‘trash’ food, and many would not even consider eating them. My, how that has changed!

Chipmunks will disappear soon to settle down for a long winter’s nap. They will come out less and less as days and nights get colder and then finally go to sleep in their well-stocked, snug nests underground. A chipmunk’s nest is about two feet underground, filled with leaves and stored food, such as hard nuts and seeds. These little mammals wake up briefly now and again during the winter, eat a little, then go back to sleep until some warm day in March when spring has returned, and they become fully active once more.

A bit of Indian summer may come before this month ends, but nature’s creatures know they should go to their winter retreats and be ready for a long, cold winter. Winds will grow stronger and leaves fall rapidly as this month ends and November arrives. The last flower to bloom may well be a dandelion in some secluded corner.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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