For over 50 years, I have been writing nature columns, first in the Norwalk Hour in Connecticut and now on Mount Desert Island. In all those years, I never came across what reached my hands this week. A friend brought me a green maple leaf with large, black tar-like spots on it. It turned out to be a fungus called tar spot, one of three fungi attacking Norway maples. All species of maples in Maine can be affected by this strange-looking fungus. They seem to cause inconsequential damage.
The infection can begin in early spring and continue into early summer. By mid-summer, the infection has developed, and the spots turn black and do look like round spots of tar about the size of a penny on the green leaf. Rarely is management of this fungus required, but it is interesting to see. The fungus will survive the Maine winter, so it might be best to burn the infected leaves.
The fungus that causes tar spots overwinters on infected leaves that fall to the ground. Then in the following spring, just as the new leaves are unfolding, the fungal tissue in the ground ripens. The spores are carried on the wind and re-infect the new leaves and start a new disease cycle. For more information about tar spot, you should contact the Maine Department of Agriculture, conservation and forestry.
Large flocks of mergansers were reported at the head of the harbor. Right now, it is possible to see hooded mergansers (the most common), common mergansers (less common these last three months) and red-breasted mergansers (less common in the last three months of the year). Mergansers are fish-eating birds. Some, like the common merganser, live mainly on freshwater lakes and ponds. Hikers along the shores of Long Pond and Jordan Pond often get views of females with their broods in the spring.
The female common merganser has a crested, rusty-colored head, a red bill and red feet. The male is recognized by his long, white body, black back and green-black head. It has an orange bill and orange feet. In flight, the male shows more white on the body and wings than any other duck. With its long, slender head and outstretched neck, you will find it easy to identify.
This duck will remain on fresh water until the water freezes and then go to open water for the winter. They are excellent divers but may have trouble getting airborne with such big bodies. When feeding in flocks, they do a good bit of splashing and diving. Different kinds of fish make up their diet, and they are voracious feeders.
These ducks prefer to nest in holes in trees and on cliffs. Where trees are absent, they will nest on the ground. The male deserts the female as soon as she is on the nest, and from then on, the mother takes care of the family. The young ducks go readily to the water, for they can swim right from the start, and if she dives, they can dive right with her. The mother duck will use herself as a decoy if necessary to protect her young. Bubble Pond is often a good place to see these mergansers.
A friend of mine is getting ready to head south for the winter and was checking his birdhouses. In several, he discovered they were stuffed with mushrooms. Squirrels love to eat mushrooms and often stash them away somewhere to dry out for later eating. They also will go into a shed or outbuilding and line them up a shelf to dry. They are both gourmet eaters and not picky. It is very natural for them to eat a big variety of native fruits, flowers and nuts. The fruit gives them a sugar boost.
Squirrels are found everywhere except in Australia. The smallest is found in Africa, and the largest is in India. Gray squirrels don’t hibernate for the winter; they actually are quite active. In September and October, the shortening of the daylight hours triggers the storing up of fat, and they are busy eating and gathering food. Gray squirrels are homotherms. They regulate their body temperature so it remains the same year-round.
With Halloween just around the corner, you may notice that your pumpkins sitting on the lawn or porch as decorations are being carved by nibbling squirrels. Squirrels like pumpkins.
Squirrels actually help trees by burying acorns for later use. The acorns get dispersed more widely when the squirrels carry them off to bury. Squirrels may create several thousand caches of nuts they have gleaned, and many are not recovered. This is called “scattered hoarding.” Nuts of all sorts are their favorite food it seems, and their favorites make a long list.
Moles dig deeper in the ground as days get colder. Squirrels enjoy beach plums. A friend sent me a lovely photo with evidence of this. Both humans and wildlife enjoy the fruit. Picking cranberries is an October activity. Enjoy whatever season we are in.