An interesting mini-drama took place outside one of my windows this week. I happened to noticed a medium-sized dragonfly flapping its wings but not going anywhere. It had flown into a spider web and was caught on the tippy edge of both wings on one side. The spider was a few inches away watching. Whenever the dragonfly stopped to rest, the spider would move in and quickly secure the wings even more and within a short few moments it had bound them together. I could have saved the dragonfly, but that would have deprived the spider of its meal so cleverly caught. I decided to watch the wildlife drama work itself out this time. If, however, it had been a hummingbird caught in a web, I probably would have interfered! By the time I stopped watching this whole event, the dragonfly was bound up in a neat bundle for later eating. In wildlife, it’s always a matter of finding something to eat while trying to avoid being eaten!
A column reader on the island near Salisbury Cove sent me a photo of a very tall, unknown plant that had come up in her garden. With a little investigation, it was found to be wild mignonette or reseda lutea. It can be very tall; this one was about 5 feet tall. As is often the case, this is a plant introduced from Europe. It first appeared in Montana in 1958 and was discovered to be a weed problem in 1990. The plant certainly attracts your attention with its size and with its shape and blossoms. A yellow dye has historically been made from the roots and dates back to the first millennium BC, earlier than either woad (an old world herb) or madder. The use of the dye came to an end at the beginning of the 20th century when cheaper and synthetic yellow dyes came into use. You are apt to find this interesting plant in man-made or disturbed habitats and in meadows and fields. Bees and butterflies are attracted to it.
September is here once again, apples are ready to pick, and we all reel from the frantic pace kept on this island in July and August. Mountain ash trees are all aflame with clusters of orange berries, and here and there you can find a touch of color on the leaves, giving a hint of the colors to come.
This month is a good time to head to the mountain tops and watch the hawk migrations. Each year, a large number of bird enthusiasts climb to their favorite high spot to watch the hawks passing by. Some birds fly so low they may pass you within just a few feet. Others will be high in the air and but a speck in the sky. On such locations as Cadillac Mountain, there is usually a knowledgeable ranger to help you identify what is passing by. It is a nice way to spend a few hours on a clear September day. All along the migration routes, there are hawk watchers, and sometimes the watchers outnumber the hawks. Make sure you have your binoculars with you!
When identifying a hawk, the first thing to do is to learn their shapes as you would an airplane, and then to put the hawks into group types: buteos, accipiters and falcons. Buteos are large hawks with broad wings and broad rounded tails. They have a habit of soaring in wide circles in the air. Accipiters are hawks with short rounded wings and long tails. They usually fly with several short, quick wing beats, then a sail. Falcons are the streamlined hawks with long, pointed wings, long tails and rapid wing strokes. After you put the hawk you are seeing in the right group, you then look for the finer points to identify the specific hawk with the aid of a good field guide. It can be a great learning experience.
One day when I was hawk watching, a merlin or pigeon hawk flew into my view. This small falcon is not much bigger than a blue jay. Merlins are especially a nice sight as they pause a moment perched on the topmost twig of some tree surveying their surroundings. From this perch, they will suddenly launch into the air and take off like a speeding arrow after a passing warbler or finch or drop into the grass after a mouse or grasshopper that attracts their attention. Merlins are superb fliers, even able to catch dragonflies on the wing! Even though a merlin may someday stop to hunt at your feeder, don’t begrudge him his meal of a small songbird or sparrow. These are lone hunters, and they are not numerous.
Cedar waxwings are around these days taking advantage of those big spiders living in webs on island porches. The spiders actually are bigger than a bird’s head, but the waxwing seems to catch them and get them down. I’ve seen a bird and spider in a bit of a battle at times, but the spider ends up being eaten even if it has to be pulled apart. I especially like those big spiders and do not disturb them.
Most birds start their families in the spring, but goldfinches wait until July, August and even until September to nest and raise their young. This is probably because the young are fed largely on semi-digested seeds which their parents regurgitate directly into their mouths. Earlier in the season, there would not be enough seeds to do the job correctly. Goldfinches love companionship and gather year round in small groups or flocks. As the winter season approaches, males will change their bright yellow feathers for dull winter colors, and then both males and females look alike. Families of chickadees are noticeable now as they move about in the trees and shrubs and the raucous call of a blue jay is often heard as these birds patrol the woods and fields for dangers to the wildlife community. That’s their job!