A great blue heron. The return of these magnificent birds is a sure sign of spring.

Herons are harbingers of spring



Great blue herons have arrived once again into our area of Maine; the sights and pleasures of a new spring season are slowly appearing. These magnificent herons are with us for many months and are seen along the shore areas and in and about island ponds, lakes and streams They are big birds, standing about 4 feet tall and having a wingspan of 6 feet. They are expert fishermen, waiting with great patience and skill for the moment to strike out at a fish or frog.

Not every time a heron catches a fish or other food does it get to enjoy the feast, for gulls and herons often fight over the same meal. I once saw a mighty battle between one of these herons and a large gull over an eel the heron had caught. The heron lost its meal and had to keep fishing. I once watched a heron catch and swallow — with difficulty — a large “unwilling to die” frog. The heron won this battle, but it took some time to swallow the frog and move it down the heron’s long neck. Just seeing or catching a glimpse of a bird is good, but actually watching them involved in their daily lives is the best.

I think one of my favorite watching moments was in Somesville with naturalist Billy Helprin. We were standing on the shore looking at gulls feeding and discovered with the help of our binoculars that one was trying to swallow a spotted salamander it had caught. The gull kept picking it up, shaking it, turning it around, dipping it in the water and repeating the whole process over and over but never consuming the salamander. It seemed odd to us that none of the other gulls tried to steal it. This was quite odd since gulls often fight over meals wherever they are found. We both went to our homes that evening bewildered but curious and came up with the reason. Spotted salamanders have a poisonous gland on the neck that discourages other creatures from eating it. Humans, however, can pick up this salamander with no problem, for we do not intend to eat it.

Spotted salamanders frequently get in cellars with a dirt floor, and they are apt to fall in window wells. If you find one in this predicament, just lift it out and move it to a safe place so it can continue on its journey.

Spring bird migrants can be expected each day this month and into May as birds arrive here from their wintering grounds many, many miles south of Mount Desert Island. From their wintering homes in Central and South America and in our own southern states, they know instinctively when it is time to head north to their breeding ground. There are many hazards for them, of course, as they fly thousands of miles over land and sea and pause when necessary for food and rest. It is critical that their ancestral and favorite eating places are still intact. They are safe havens during storms while traveling. A new housing development or any such drastic change in an ancestral refueling area might impact their survival. Getting their food easily and at the right time while traveling thousands of miles on migration is a matter of survival. We should cheer for each spring migrant as it arrives. A friend of mine literally does this with me each year as each migrant appears on the Cranberry Isles. Her enthusiastic calls early in the morning from Islesford bring joy to my spring days.

I heard from a longtime column reader this week about a white skunk coming to his yard in the evening. It is quite startling to look at. True albino skunks (white with pink eyes) are not common, but you do find white wildlife of all sorts at numerous times. I once had a white porcupine named “Charmin” that visited nursing homes and gave the residents great pleasure. It was tame and friendly and liked to be held. Often on this island, you see deer that are partially white with brown blotches. These are called “piebald deer,” a sign of overpopulation.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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