Nature: Salamander costumes ready for Halloween

On the footpath above the water and rocks along the Ocean Drive these days you should be looking at the berry-bearing shrubs. Especially grabbing your attention is the red elderberry, a common shrub in the area. It grows from 3-12 inches high and in this month has conspicuous cone shaped clusters of red berries.

Mountain holly is another shrub to look for. Its dull red berries are also pretty and they are good wildlife food. The leaves do not have that familiar holly shape at all; mountain holly has smooth leaves.

Black alder or winterberry holly is also showing its bright red berries firmly growing right next to the twigs. Get hold of a good shrub identification book and take yourself out exploring. This is prime time for fruit. Wildlife know this well and are feeding on the feast. Ruffed grouse especially like high bush cranberries now.

The lovely white flowers on the bunchberry plants now have changed to clusters of red fruit. They are not good for human consumption but various wild creatures like them. Bunchberry plants add nice color to the October woods.

New England asters defy frosts as long as possible their deep purple blossoms are still lovely from August to October. I have just returned from as wonderful trip in Newfoundland, Labrador and Quebec and got to see them adding bright color along the northern Maine roads. They are in their prime in late summer and fall. I’ll share some of my natural history travel adventures there in coming weeks.

Halloween this month always prompts me to talk about the spotted salamanders living here on Mount Desert Island. This salamander always looks as if it is wearing a wonderful costume in black covered with big yellow spots. It is perfectly harmless and lives a quiet life in our woods and wet places. This salamander has a plump body, large and dark eyes and a broadly rounded snout. For most of its life a salamander stays out of sight underground and moves about harmlessly at night looking for earthworms, beetles, moth’s cutworms and other crawling creatures.

Sometimes these salamanders fall into a ditch, window well or swimming pool and need to be helped out. They do not bite so you can readily become a helping hand. During the winter salamanders hibernate in burrows. Ice fishermen sometimes see them under the ice moving slowly about. If you handle the salamander, keep your hands wet for they breathe through their skin.

You might even see a garter snake out and about now, especially on sunny October day. This commonly seen snake is harmless, as are all of the five snakes living on this island. The garter snake, however, is much more able to withstand the cold weather than any of the others. Always welcome snakes to your yard for their eating habits are very beneficial.

Snakes are quite amazing in the way they eat. They can actually swallow food greater than the diameter of their head. The lower jaw is joined at the chin by tissue elastic enough to be widely stretched. The unique jaw provides much freedom of movement. The many, tiny curved needle-like teeth point inward, so by moving the jaws alternately the food is gradually worked down the gullet. Snakes swallow their food whole and then digest it slowly.

A large black bug flew onto a friend’s back one evening and really startled him. It 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 giant waterbug.

This is a wide, flat bodied insect with powerful grasping forelegs and hind legs formed for vigorous swimming. Its total length is 1-2 inches. If you find one of these bugs be careful about touching it for can bite hard with its strong beak.

Toe biters, another name for waterbugs, live in fresh water ponds and lakes and prey on insects, snails, frogs, other amphibians and fish. They have a habit of flying to strong lights at night, thus giving them their other nickname of “electric light bug.” In China there is a giant waterbug that is cooked and eaten as a delicacy!

Chipmunks will disappear soon as they settle down for a long winter’s nap. As days get colder they come out less and less and finally to sleep in their well-stocked snug nest underground. A chipmunk’s nest is about two feet underground, filled with leaves and stored food such as hard nuts and seeds. These small mammals wake up briefly now and again during the winter, eat a little, then go back to sleep. Not until some warm day in March when spring has really returned will you see them outside and active again.

Enjoy all of our October days here on Mount Desert Island.

Send any questions 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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