Nature: Birds, insects begin migrations

When September arrives a wee bit of color starts to show on a few trees. It is but a hint of the ‘show’ to come quite soon. Apple trees are laden with fruit everywhere and mountain ash trees are aflame with clusters of orange berries.

Hawk flights over Mount Desert Island this month are spectacular and it is well worth heading to a good observation spot with a picnic lunch and spending a few hours watching for the birds. Check with the National Park to see where there may be a ranger stationed to help you identify the hawks flying by. Take binoculars with you and your bird book.

When identifying hawks the first thing to do is to learn their shapes as you would an airplane. Then you can put the various types of hawks into group types. The group types are buteos, accipiters and falcons. Buteos are large hawks with broad wings and broad rounded tails. They have a habit of soaring in wide circles high 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 and rapid wing strokes. After you put the hawks you are seeing in the right group you look for the finer points in order to name the specific hawk. A good field guide is also very helpful. Note details, and take photos if you can.

One day when I was on Beech Mountain a merlin or pigeon hawk flew into view. This small falcon is hardly bigger than a blue jay. They are sometimes easy to see when they pause a few moments on the topmost twig of a nearby bush or small tree. From this perch they suddenly fly out into the air like a speeding arrow after a passing warbler or finch or they will drop into the grass for a mouse or grasshopper. They are superb fliers and well able to catch even a dragonfly on the wing.

Merlins are small falcons and are regularly seen here on migration. Even though a merlin may appear at your feeder someday and grab a song sparrow or some other bird at your feeder do not begrudge him his lunch. Merlins are not numerous here and every bird needs to eat. Your feeders make it easier.

Man-made roads were certainly busy this summer. Now the airways used by wildlife will be busy and many birds migrate southwards. Birds that have not been in evidence too much gather on the wires, in flocks and gorge on seeds and other food in preparation for their long flights south.

Many birds migrate at night and others by day. Some insects migrate, too. They may go from a tree to the ground, or from a field to a barn. The monarch butterflies, however, make a long flight to their wintering grounds in Mexico.

Most birds start their families in the spring but our commonly seen goldfinch waits until late July, August and even September. Male goldfinches change their plumage in the winter and look like the females. You can see some at your feeder all winter. In the spring the males get their yellow and black feathers but in the winter males and females look alike.

Red efts are on the move this month. The red eft is the land stage of the red-spotted newt. It’s almost like two salamanders in one. In the water stage it is a newt. When on land it is called an eft. Adults live in the ponds where they lay their eggs. The eggs hatch and turn into larvae and live in the water. By fall they have developed and leave the water: their gills are replaced with lungs. They then go into the woods and live on land for a year or so.

Red efts are bright red or an orange red and very interesting to see. On each side of their backs they have a row of crimson spots bordered with black. They are completely harmless and spend their lives walking around moist areas. During the winter they hibernate under a rock or an old log. Take time to look at one if you should see it in the woods. At some point in their lives they will return to the water and stay there.

Bonaparte’s gulls are flying in our harbors. They are the smallest gull to be seen here. In summer this gull is easily recognized by its black hood and orange red legs. As the seasons change there is only a little bit of black on the head and it is a much less dramatic looking bird. Their flight though, is always distinctive for they are light and buoyant in the air. The gull is generally seen here in the last few months of the year.

The warmth of the sun is still enjoyed now by our local snakes. If you are new here always remember that we have no poisonous snakes on MDI so greet them as good neighbors and interesting creatures. The snakes living here include the red bellied snake, garter snake, smooth green snake, ring necked snake and the northern milk snake. They are all quite easy to recognize. The beautiful and harmless milk snake sometimes gets misidentified as a copperhead or rattlesnake but there are no poisonous snakes here. The snakes you are most likely to find in your garden are the garter and perhaps the smaller ring necked snake. Snakes eat large quantities of such things as slugs, so welcome them to your yard and garden. Some snakes lay eggs and others give birth to living young.

Keep going outside as often as possible and enjoy the wildlife events taking place all around you on this island.

Send any questions, photos 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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