A big black bug flew into a friend’s back one evening recently and really startled him! The bug looked menacing and he had no idea what it was. After it arrived at my house in a sealed jar, I identified it as a toe-biter or giant water bug. This is a wide, flat bodied insect with powerful grasping forelegs and hind legs formed for vigorous swimming. The total length is one to two inches.
If you find one of these bugs, be careful about touching it for they can bite hard with their strong beak. Toe-biters live in fresh water ponds and lakes preying upon insects, snails, frogs and other amphibians, and even small fish. They have a habit of flying to strong outdoor lights thus giving them their other nickname “electric-light bug“. In China there is a giant water bug that is cooked and eaten as a delicacy.
In spite of chilly temperatures and a bit of frost here and there on these October nights there are many insects still active. Crab spiders lurk in goldenrod blossoms ready to attack the many insect visitors that come to this attractive flower. Such visitors include insect borers, paper wasps, honey bees and ambush bugs. Treehoppers feed on the leaves as do goldenrod beetles when they are larvae and adults. Ants feed on the extra sap exuded by young treehoppers. Gall insects lay eggs on the plant and the resulting deformity grown on the plant is the gall in which the insect larva then lives. Dark spots on the leaf surface, looking like drops of ink, are really blister galls made by a species of midge.
A bit of Indian summer may come in October but most creatures have taken to winter retreats or have made preparations for a long winter to come. October comes to an end with fewer and fewer warm days. Winds grow stronger and leaves fall rapidly making the landscape a wintry one. It is possible, though, to find the lovely evening primrose blooming in some sunny location. The last flower to bloom may be a dandelion in some sheltered corner.
A few turtles still sun themselves whenever the opportunity presents itself. Maine turtles have to dig in muddy lake bottoms when the temperature gets cold. Sometimes, however, skaters are surprised to see a turtle swimming under clear ice in local ponds.
I still even now see a flicker along the road stuffing itself with ants before migrating south for the winter. That clearly visible white patch on the base of the flicker’s tail ‘tells’ who is flying up from the side of the roadways. These woodpeckers do not spend the winter here.
Be sure to walk along the shore if you can at low tide to see the colorful red glasswort at this time. It is green the rest of the year but turns a bright red color in the fall.
A yellow-bellied sapsucker was seen this past week on Islesford. This beautiful woodpecker is not a resident here but is seen regularly here and there on this island and the outer islands from late April to mid-November. Its way of getting sap is unique and not appreciated by some. Woodpeckers as a group normally have long barbed tipped tongues. These tongues allow them to reach deep into holes and retrieve the ants. Sapsuckers do not have long tongues. They have shorter tongues coated with fine hairs to help them lap up the sap. In order to get the sap within reach the sapsuckers drill neat rows of holes on the trunk. Sap oozes from these holes and they feed there. Insects are also attracted to the oozing sap. When you’re out walking in the woods look for sapsucker holes in fruit trees. This is precision drilling.
The Yellow bellied sapsucker is a beautiful bird. The male is black and white and has bright red feathers on the top of its head and on the throat. You know it’s a woodpecker by its behavior. It is only common here during migration.
Our resident winter woodpeckers are the downy and hairy woodpeckers, pileated woodpecker, and the black-backed woodpecker.
The walk between Bubble Pond and Jordon Pond gives an excellent opportunity for you to see the beautiful Christmas fern. This is the first fern I ever learned to recognize when I was a child. A naturalist friend captured my imagination when he pointed out to me how each leaflet looks like a tiny Christmas stocking. This spreading evergreen fern is one to look for in the shady woods and ravines on this island, especially near Bubble Pond.
The plant sweet fern, growing profusely on this island, is not a fern at all but a shrub. Pinch one of the dark olive-green leaves and you will experience the sweet aroma. This 2-3 inch-high shrub is related to the bayberry, another aromatic shrub. As I’m writing these words I’m also thinking of the sweet aroma from our local Bayberry leaves.
The Bayberry plants found along the coast rarely get very high but they are readily recognized by their tiny aromatic leaves or the waxy green turning gray-white berries. Although not really berries in the technical sense of the word, they provide food for tree swallows and other birds especially in the winter. Candles are scented from wax obtained by boiling the berries.
Please let me know what you are seeing in the woods, fields, at your feeders up in the sky, or out on the water.
Send any questions, observations, or photos to [email protected] or call 244-3742.