Early one morning, I discovered numerous spider webs on the dewy grass, making interesting patterns. The webs looked like very fine, lacy handkerchiefs spread out to dry on the grass. It was hard to see the creature that had made this unique “trap,” but I could see the little funnel-shaped portion where it was hiding. The spider waits there out of sight but ready to spring into action when something moves on the web’s surface.
It is not particularly easy to see the maker of this web. Grass spiders seldom leave their webs. They usually hide in the part of the web sheltered by rocks, debris or fallen leaves. If you did pick the spider up, it would give you a painful bite but otherwise would be harmless. These spiders are actually beneficial, for they catch and eat insects feeding on lawn grass. It’s a nice sight to see their webs spread out in the early morning dew.
Steeplebush is now in bloom along my driveway and many island roadsides. This shrub is also called “hardhack.” It is a member of the rose family, and it has a rosy colored bloom. The colorful flowers bloom in succession slowly downward so often the top of the spike is half-withered while the lower part is exquisite with rosy blooms. These flowers keep their beauty for a long time and are attractive in flower arrangements even when dry and devoid of leaves.
Countless flies, beetles and bees visit the lovely steeplebush, which yields little or no nectar but does yield an abundance of pollen. If insects fail in their service to the plants, steeplebush can cross-fertilize like most of the members of the rose family. The underside of the steeplebush is very woolly, so the plant is protected from perspiring too freely. The woolly hairs act as an absorbent layer to protect their pores from clogging with the vapors that rise from the damp ground in which the plant grows. If these pores were filled with moisture, they would be unable to throw off the waste of the plant. All plants are largely dependent upon free perspiration from normal growth, but those whose roots are stuck in wet ground are constantly sending up moisture through stems and leaves.
The distinctive “yodeling” of common loons here on Mount Desert Island ponds and lakes is a treat to our senses. The call is such a special sound to hear on a Maine lake after dark in the stillness of the night. Several nests have been successful so far on this island, and hopefully the young will reach maturity. Loons do have numerous perils to overcome after the eggs hatch and the young develop. Eagles like to eat them, and snapping turtles and large fish eat them. Too much human activity on and around their lakes stresses them at a time when the young are growing and learning to live on their own. Respect their privacy when you are out on our lakes and ponds and you see loons. Don’t try to get too close.
Turkey vultures are one of our very large birds flying over this island. They are easy to recognize, however, if you remember that they fly with their large wings slightly tilted upwards at the tip, forming a dihedral. Their flight often appears a little “tipsy,” and they do soar a lot.
Turkey vultures do not stay here year-round, but since the 1980s, they have been seen regularly in the nesting season. Although most people do not call them beautiful, they certainly are interesting birds to see. Their bald red heads are not particularly pretty, but they are useful for a bird that regularly sticks its head into a rotting carcass to get its food. The bird is perfectly designed as a carrion eater. Feathers on its head would be too messy to clean up; a naked head solves the problem. Vultures are part of the “clean-up” bird squad that eats and removes roadkills. The squad also includes crows and ravens. Foxes, too, feed their young any roadkills they find. Eagles, too, readily feast on carrion, especially along the shore in the form of fish, crabs and seals.
Take a ride on the ocean one of these summer days if you have a chance. There are many interesting birds to see and some nice sea creatures. Seals are curious by nature and often surface near boats to stare at the intruders in their world. As they relax on offshore rocky ledges, they do look like mermaids. Seals are ungainly on land, but in the water, they are graceful and right at home. If all goes well for them, they can live about 40 years in the wild.
We regularly see harbor and gray seals in the saltwater around our island. Dolphins and porpoises are to be expected as well. I always enjoy watching white-sided dolphins. They seem quite sociable and most often in high spirits. These dolphins range from 7-to-9-feet long and have a narrow, white patch on the side. The flippers are all black, the flanks area lighter gray and the belly white.
They are found only in the North Atlantic. For a good size comparison, stop in at the Dorr Natural History Museum at the College of the Atlantic so you can get a real sense of their size. The museum has excellent exhibits of these mammals.
Enjoy whatever you see in the natural world this week.