Warm fall befuddles wildlife

This is a glorious fall with clear skies and warm weather, but it may be confusing our plants and wild creatures. The cooler temperatures of fall as we head into winter are more normal and do not encourage continued blooming, which is the way it should be. Winter will come with a vengeance, and all life needs to be prepared. How it will work out is still an unknown.

A friend sent me a nice plant photo to be identified this week. He took it while hiking on the Kelley Homestead property in Bernard this past weekend. I identified it a samphire or glasswort. This plant is also known as sea pickle. You’ve probably seen it if you’ve hiked along any of the local shorelines and salt water marsh areas. It is especially noticeable now for it is turning a crimson red. I’ve known it as glasswort for years, and I always enjoy seeing it especially in the fall when it is red and very beautiful. Look for this smooth and fleshy plant growing in the marshes and at areas around tide pools.

The fleshy stems are edible and salty and often used in salads and soups. Only collect them outside the national park if you want to try eating some. As a succulent, it has a high water content, which accounts for its slightly translucent look and gives it the descriptive name of glasswort. Some people know it as chicken toe because of its shape. The genus name Salicornia comes from sal (salt) and cornus (horn). It is a plant of saline areas and has horn-like branches. Wild geese feed on the fleshy branches, and in the fall, ducks such as pintails eat the seed-containing stem tips when they mature and turn reddish. This plant is also eaten by insects and some mammals. Glasswort dies in the winter, and its seeds are scattered in the mud for the following year. Watch for this plant on your walks along the shore.

Two deer crossed my lawn as I returned home one day. They were small but old enough to be out and about on their own and were enjoying the apples falling from a tree in my yard. The dog’s pen is not very far away, but the deer munched away unconcernedly as she barked at their intrusion into her territory. They know she is confined and ignored her. Apples are very plentiful this year. Some trees have their branches bending almost to the breaking point with heavy fruit. This is a good year for cider making and applesauce. Wild fruit is very abundant this year.

Hummingbirds are still busy visiting fall flowers. Keep your hummingbird feeders out for awhile, for any birds getting ready to migrate need to be well fed for their long southern journey.

Flickers are noticeable all over the island as they fly up from the roadsides where they are feeding. That white patch on their lower back is unmistakable and identifies them right off. Flickers are on the sandy sides of roads and driveways catching ants, a favorite food. The tongue of a flicker is very long and sticky, so the bird inserts it down inside the ant’s nest and catches quite a few to eat. The tongue is mounted on the inside of the upper mouth near the front, which helps the whole process. Flickers will soon be heading south for the winter.

Our native woodpeckers include the downy and hairy woodpeckers, and of course, the large pileated woodpeckers. Black-backed woodpeckers are also here but not seen so often. In the winter, red-bellied woodpeckers come quite regularly. The three-toed woodpecker is a rarer winter visitor. I watched hairy and downy woodpeckers feed close together at a friend’s feeding area one day this week. It was very easy to tell them apart when both were in view, but they are very similar. The hairy woodpecker’ bill is heavier, and he is a bit bigger; otherwise, they look alike. It is the size that makes the difference.

People going on local whale watching and sea bird tours tell of nice sightings these days. Getting out on the water with local guides is a great way to enjoy extraordinary wildlife. White-sided dolphins can make a sea trip very exciting, as well as seeing any whale. Gannets are always a possibility when you are out on the water a good ways from shore. I have visited the huge gannet colonies in Newfoundland the last four years and found the experiences awesome. Here, we see a few at a time flying along over the waves on their wide wings or diving from the sky, nose first into the water to catch a fish. If some of this year’s young birds are out on their own for the first time, they often wander into this area, and when the fishing is good, we can see them fishing right off shore. Some of my best gannet days have been at Seawall as these handsome birds fished between Mount Desert Island and Islesford. They plummet from the sky and dive headfirst into the water with a splash to catch a fish. It is an exciting sight.

You might also see shearwaters, big gull-like sea birds with very wide wings, gliding along just above the water using a few deep wing beats and long glides. Shearwaters feed on the surface of the water and also by diving and swimming underwater. They eat small fish, crustaceans and squid. A good time to see them is when fish parts are being thrown overboard by fishermen. The birds gather for the feast. There are several kinds of shearwaters seen in our Maine waters, but the greater shearwater is the most common. Others are the sooty, Manx, Cory’s shearwater and the northern fulmar, which is also a shearwater.

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

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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