A sea cucumber

Sea cucumbers can eject internal organs



A new month begins, and November seems to be a time when we experience a mixture of summer and winter moods. Frosty mornings contrast with afternoons so warm you may even hear a spring peeper calling.

My interesting creature of the week was a sea cucumber. These sea creatures are strange and fascinating. They can even be beautiful at times. Initially, they look like cucumber-like blobs and hardly seem alive. If you patiently wait and watch them, however, they change into some oddly beautiful shapes and bright colors.

In spite of their appearance, sea cucumbers are actually animals closely related to sea stars, brittle stars, sea urchins and sand dollars. They range in color from orange to green to black, and specimens can be from 2-18 inches long and about 5 inches wide. The ones you may find in a tide pool are usually smaller than this. When you are out and about along the shore, look for them sticking out of a rocky crevice or under some kelp.

Sometimes the orange-footed sea cucumber is called a “pumpkin” because of its color. They are filter feeders, and if you are patient, you may get to see them feed using their tentacles. This can be very interesting to watch. They feed in the manner of waving their sticky frondlike tentacles to catch any living or nonliving particles. While eating from one tentacle, they spread out another tentacle to gather more food and repeat this procedure for hours.

One amazing thing they do when threatened is to eject their internal organs and then grow news ones! They also can turn themselves inside out when confined in water too stale for their use. A new edition of a book called “Living on the Edge” by Ruth Grierson and Thomas Vining will be out in 2018, and you can read more about the creatures living at the edge of the sea.

As the days get colder and all life knows that winter is coming, animals react differently. Like humans, many creatures are out and about in the snow and cold coping in their own special ways in the winter months. Others hibernate and sleep. Hibernation is not something done impulsively or suddenly. It is usually a slow process of sleeping, waking, sleeping and finally entering a deep sleep. Animals such as chipmunks prepare weeks ahead by laying up large stores of food. Woodchucks eat and eat until they have layers of fat on their bodies and then go into a deep sleep until spring.

Deer wander about in family groups now and eat whatever they can find. Anyone driving about sees plenty of deer wandering about both day and night. Muskrats are putting the finishing touches on their houses. Fur bearers have heavy coats. Snowshoe hares and weasels turn white to match the snowy landscape and thus escape some enemies. Gray and red squirrels are stashing away food. Most of the warblers are gone, but you may encounter yellow-rumped warblers along the shore trails eating bayberries. A friend saw a red squirrel eating bayberries one day as well. That seemed a bit unusual. Warblers usually live on insects, but the yellow-rumped warbler can subsist on berries and seeds. If bayberries run out, they will eat the berries of the red cedar, Virginia creepers, viburnums and honeysuckles.

Golden-crowned kinglets are busy now eating caterpillar eggs. In the summer, this tiny bird feeds on small flying insects, many of which they catch on the wing. In the winter, when flying insects no longer are available, they feed mostly on insect and the eggs of plant lice and other small tree pests. Insects they particularly like include small grasshoppers, locusts, caterpillars, leaf hoppers, weevils and plant lice.

Kinglets are the smallest of the New England birds, except for the ruby-throated hummingbird. From beak to tail, they measure only 3-1/2 inches long. The male golden-crowned kinglet has a conspicuous yellow-orange crown; the female a yellow crown. Both have a white stripe over the eye. Golden-crowned kinglets stay here all year, but in the winter, they flock together and are more noticeable as they feed in the evergreens. They are quite tame, and you often can get within 12 feet of them as they actively feed. With their distinctive colors, they brighten up the winter woods.

Here on MDI, we can see both the ruby-crowned kinglet and the golden-crowned kinglet. Their small size helps you identify them. Their long, thick and fluffy plumage helps them withstand the harsh Maine winter weather. Not all kinglets stay in the north for the winter, however, some ruby-crowned kinglets may leave and winter as far south as Guatemala.

If we experience severe storms at this time of year, you may find dovekies, those small sea birds, stranded on shore or wandering in a dooryard. Help them back to the sea if you find one. Watch for unusual birds after any severe storm.

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

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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