Wildlife migration sometimes miraculous



September is well underway, and colors will soon appear on our trees, a hint of things to come. Apple trees are heavily laden with fruit, and deer are feasting on this fruit all over the island. Mountain ash trees are aflame with clusters of orange berries. It’s harvest time.

Hawk flights over Mount Desert Island begin this month, and they can be spectacular. You just need to take yourself to the top of Cadillac Mountain or climb up Beech Mountain to the fire tower and watch the show. On migration, the hawks often fly low, and you get excellent views of them slipping by over the trees, shrubs and rocks as they migrate south. They, of course, have to eat along the way and come close to the ground to find their food of choice. Observers may see them as just specks in the sky or again very close so you can see their beautiful feathers. Sometimes the observers outnumber the hawks at favorite observations places; other times there are thousands of birds going by. If you need a little help with identification, there is often a park ranger on duty on Cadillac Mountain. With a few helpful suggestions, you quickly can learn to identify the various hawks coming by overhead. Have a good bird guide with you and your binoculars of course. Take a sandwich and a thermos with you for an enjoyable outing on the mountains.

One day, I was watching a merlin, also called pigeon hawk, coming into my view. This is a small falcon not much bigger than a bluejay. For a moment, the bird perched on the topmost twig of a small tree nearby to survey its landscape, and I was able to see all of its beautiful feathers. From this perch, it suddenly launched into the air and like a speeding arrow took off after a passing warbler of some sort.They also are very good at spotting mice and grasshoppers in the grass. They are such superb fliers that they can even catch butterflies on the wing.

Merlins are seen frequently here on Mount Desert Island during migration, and they are the only small falcon with a heavily banded tail. They generally migrate at treetop level, and their powers of flight are remarkable. Even though one of these birds may grab a favorite songbird or sparrow at your feeder some day, do not begrudge it a lunch. Merlins are not numerous.

Many birds migrate at night, others do so by day, as dedicated hawk watchers know well. Although the distance traveled is not usually as spectacular as with some birds, insects migrate too. They may go from tree to the ground or from the field to the barn. The monarch butterfly, on the other hand, flies a long distance.

I noticed recently that a neighbor of mine has renamed her home in a field “Monarch Farm.” I like that very much, and she has left a nice patch of standing wild flowers for the butterflies to feed on. Monarchs love milkweed! These butterflies are truly amazing, for they weigh approximately one-fifteenth of an ounce, yet they manage to fly thousands of miles to their wintering grounds in Mexico.

Before 1974, no one knew where monarchs went in the winter, but Fred A. Urquhart of the University of Toronto persevered in his research and discovered their wintering grounds in the hidden valleys about three hours from Mexico City. For 30,000 years, these delicate looking butterflies have traveled in November from various places in eastern North America to Mexico. There, they mass together on the branches and trunks of the coyamel fir trees. Sometimes the branches of the tree break because of the weight of all these butterflies!

Monarchs spend five months in a dormant state clustered in the trees, then in March, they “come back to life,” mate and make their return flight to Maine, among other places, where we enjoy seeing them sitting on milkweed plants or flitting over local fields and gardens. They are truly amazing.

The caterpillar of this butterfly is also very colorful. A column reader just this week sent me a photo of one in his garden. The caterpillar is big and fat and colored yellow and black. Check this one out in a book or on the computer. It really is handsome.

A snowy egret has been seen near the Trenton Bridge coming onto MDI. No doubt, there are others that I have not heard about or seen myself. The biggest egret visiting here is the American or great egret. The snowy egret is much smaller and has black legs and a black bill. Its feet are a golden yellow, making it look as it is wearing “golden slippers.” I saw a handsome sculpture at the Salty Dog Gallery in Southwest Harbor recently of three life-sized crows walking along wearing colorful high heels. A life-sized snowy egret sculpture wearing golden slippers could be interesting as well.

A mother wild turkey has been appearing at a neighbor’s feeder with her babies. These wild birds are not beautiful, but they have a good attitude about themselves. The female alone cares for her brood. Males would usually kill the young. The female turkey has to hide her nest and young from him.

A neighbor heard a crash this week and went to investigate. He found that a broad-winged hawk had smashed into a window of the house in pursuit of a mounted duck sitting just inside on a table. The hawk was killed on impact. Check your windows and what you have sitting inside your house so wildlife is not confused.

Send any questions or observation 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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