Spotted salamanders are among the many amphibians that can be seen at night as they search for food. PHOTO COURTESY OF SCOTT GRIERSON

Marsh hawk may have multiple mates

A large bird was flying low over a field at the side of the road and then crossed in front of a friend of mine in Lamoine this past week. She was seeing a beautiful avian glider called the “northern harrier” or “marsh hawk.” This large hawk has a beautiful flight. It glides low over island fields and marshes, showing its white tail patch with wings held slightly above the horizontal. Its flight is similar to the flight of a turkey vulture.

A few pairs of these hawks breed on this island in the summer. They are beautiful to watch in flight. I was watching one on the fields one day in the middle of this island when it swooped down and came up with a rodent in its talons. Their diet varies with locations and the season. It may include voles, rats, other rodents up to the size of a hare, some birds, large insects, snakes and frogs to mention just a few. They prefer fresh water and brackish marshes, lightly grazed meadows, low and thick vegetation and broad marshes. There are several places on this island where they will be seen.

If you spot one, watch it fly low over the ground. Their home life is a bit unique, for they may have two mates at a time or maybe five if food is abundant. These hawks nest and also roost on the ground. When there are multiple mates, the male chases away any other male, and the females chase away other females. Watch for these lovely birds now as you drive here and there on MDI.

My pond is interesting to explore and watch these days for birds, mammals and insects. This week, backswimmers were busy moving about. They are strange little oval creatures moving about swimming on their backs with oar-like legs. Backswimmers eat mammals smaller than themselves in the water, such as bloodworms, and insects, aquatic larvae and even other backswimmers! They also will snatch invertebrates from the surface and drag them under to eat. Local ponds have all sorts of interesting creatures to observe.

I don’t pick them up, for their bite is sharp and painful, much like the sting of a mosquito. The backswimmer stabs with its tubular mouthparts.

Cedar waxwings have been in the trees around my house. They are beautiful birds and always look to be wearing their finest clothes and having the best manners. It’s quite easy to recognize them, for they are one of the few birds living here that has a crest. They are a lovely soft brown or bronze color and have a touch of red on the wing. “Elegant” is the word to describe them. They are abundant on our island. Usually you see them in small flocks.

Four great blue herons traveling together have been reported from various places on Mount Desert Island this week. They are recent arrivals from the south and will be seen throughout the summer, for a few of them nest here. They are communal nesters.

The amphibian community is wide awake now, and if you go out in the evening and explore ponds and wet areas nearby, you will find beautiful spotted salamanders in many places. These amphibians are very odd looking but very beautiful. They are harmless and can be touched, but be sure you make your hands wet to keep them comfortable.

The spotted salamander is one of what are called “mole salamanders.” Some adults have grown to be 9 inches, but they usually average from 6-7.5 inches. This salamander is terrestrial, pretty much preferring wet woods where it lives underground for most of its life. They come out to feed at night, and that’s when we humans get to see them. Sometimes they accidently fall in a window well, swimming pool, hole or ditch and need a helping hand to get them out and on their way. Once in a while, one is found in a cellar with a dirt floor. Just pick it up and put it outside and on its way.

After they have mated and lay their eggs in local wet areas, the adults will retire to the woods. The young hatch in vernal pools and small ponds, and then when ready in their development, they leave the pond and look like miniature adults. These salamanders are always fun to see.

If you want a good book about them, I recommend “Amphibians of New England” by Anne Orth Epple, illustrated by Patrice M. Rossi, published by Down East Books in Camden. It’s a gem.

This is prime time as a new wildlife year begins, so watch especially for song sparrows and tree sparrows, killdeer in open fields, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and flickers joining once again with resident woodpeckers, listen for juncos singing their spring song, kestrels sitting on our wires once again and much, much more. I happily watched a mourning cloak butterfly fluttering about near my porch on Sunday. This is our earliest of the year.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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