The bright yellow flower heads of tansy make MDI especially beautiful right now. This tall plant grows almost anywhere. It is not only beautiful, but the plant is a natural insecticide. I like to dry the flowers and use them to repel moths, etc. In medieval days, this plant was used in castles and homes in Europe to keep them fresh and clean. It was strewn across the floors in poorly ventilated rooms to give them a fresh scent and to repel lice. Crush the leaves, and you will experience the pleasant aroma. Tansy is a tall plant with fern-like leaves. An examination of the leaves will show that they have been uneaten by insects. Take time to appreciate its beauty and usefulness.
The second brood of mourning cloak butterflies appears in August. These are the earliest butterflies to appear each year and are usually seen in April after their hibernation in the adult butterfly stage. The spiny caterpillars of the mourning cloak are gregarious and have the unusual habit of arranging themselves side-by-side on the leaves of willows, elms and poplars with their heads facing toward the leaf margins as they feed. This is a comical and interesting sight. When they have completely skeletonized the leafy meal, they march in procession to another eating location. As they go along, each caterpillar spins a silken thread. All the threads collectively are called a “carpet” on which they walk. It is possible in the north that a mourning cloak will have only one brood.
I’m often asked what my favorite activity was in Newfoundland on my recent trip. Aside from making music up there on my violin with the wonderful Newfoundlanders, I think my answer would be the nice encounters with wildlife that appeared. This last trip, my favorite event was on a grey foggy day along the coast when I had some excellent views of a long-billed curlew feeding in the seaweed on the rocky shore. The long downward-curved bill is amazing and very noticeable on this good-sized shorebird. The bill is greater in length than more than half of the bird’s body. Its bill is an impressive tool!
It was probably looking for a nice meal of crabs and other invertebrates. They are, however, also fond of insects, beetles, grasshoppers and sometimes the eggs of other birds. This curlew is a special sight to see. Sometimes, golfers out very early on a fall morning see one on a golf course even here on Mount Desert Island as a bird stops to feed on migration. I can still close my eyes now and in my mind’s eye see this wonderful bird probing for food very near where the Vikings landed. What hardy explorers the Vikings were to land and survive in such an inhospitable part of Newfoundland.
If you have good hearing, it is possible to step outside on a foggy night now and to hear storm petrels moving overhead. Several members of my family have been and some are still able to do this. Petrels are small sea birds, living most of their lives on and over the water except when nesting. A favorite nickname for these birds is Mother Carey’s chickens. Anyone out on boats now should see them skimming over the water. Petrels are little bigger than a barn swallow and have white rump patches and are only seen out a ways over the water. Their erratic flight is distinctive. Their feet often touch the crest of a wave lightly in passing.
These birds are quite unusual, for they dig burrows in the soil on the outer islands and lay their eggs in the burrow. The parents share sitting on the nest. Males seem to incubate during the day and females at night. As night comes on, the males and females exchange duties. It is believed that they can see equally well in both daylight and darkness. Incubation and the fledgling period last about 98 days. Wherever they nest, it is best not walk on the ground there, for your feet could crush their tunnels and kill them. Many offshore nesting islands discourage visitors because of this reason.
Once the nesting period is over, petrels live at sea, feeding on the variety of marine creatures they can glean from the water and resting on the surface when they need to. They can drink sea water, for like the fulmar and other true sea birds, they have a tube nose. Tube noses are equipped with a filter to remove excess salt from the blood, so they can drink from the sea.
Be alert as you walk the shore these days and evening, for migrants are passing through and can be nice to see. Look for small groups of shorebirds moving along the shore close to the water. They are often hard to see until you get too close and they fly up in front of you. You may not always be able to identify them. No matter what they are, watch them feed and enjoy the moment. Just seeing them can be enjoyable. Wish them well on their long journeys.
Watch where you step these days when you are watering your gardens and shrubs. A friend of mine unknowingly stepped on a yellow jacket nest in or near the ground and was stung on her legs, not a pleasant experience. Yellow jackets often nest in the ground, but their colonies can be found in some crevice of a building, or sidewalk or at the base of a tree. The queen builds a small paper nest in her chosen spot. Adults live through one season and feed on caterpillars, insets and grubs. They also are attracted to sweet substances such as jellies and jams at a picnic, garbage and other meats and sweet food. They are quite often uninvited guests at a picnic.
Yellow jackets defend their nests vigorously and are quick to sting, as my friend found out. Fortunately, she is not allergic to such stings, and it just hurt a lot. Many people have to carry an antihistamine as a precaution just in case they get stung. If you are allergic, always be ready. Yellow jackets have yellow-and-black bodies, and their elongated wings are as long as the body and fold laterally when at rest. They are social wasps living in colonies that may contain thousands of insects at a time. Try not to bother them.