Greet each morning with great expectations these new April days, for migrants are arriving slowly but surely, and all forms of wildlife are getting ready for new families and new life. It can be very exciting if you take time to notice what is happening around you on this island in Maine.
A friend told me of seeing a turkey vulture this past week flying overhead near Southwest Harbor. This very large bird has spent the winter far to the south and is just now returning to our area for the nesting season. It is the turkey vulture that is mostly frequently seen here, but a few black vultures also may be seen as summer progresses.
The turkey vulture has a wing span of 6 feet, and it is a big bird in our skies, along with the eagles, great blue herons and ospreys. Although most people don’t think the bird handsome with its bald, red, featherless head, the bird is impressive. The bird is very well designed for the life it leads. Their main food is carrion, and that means poking their heads into a rotting carcass. Cleaning up a bald head afterwards is a lot easier than if the bird had feathers all over the head. Nature designed this bird very well.
You can quite easily recognize this large bird in the sky, for it has a distinctive flight. Vultures hold their large wings out and slightly tilted upwards forming a dihedral; they flap infrequently and have a habit of soaring about with wings held slightly above the horizontal. The other large birds we can see here do not have this pattern of flight. Eagles hold their wings flat out to the side. Great blue herons fly with the head and neck folded back and their long legs trailing behind.
The arrival of spring is often associated with the arrival of great blue herons. When I see the herons, I consider it a sign that winter is officially over. I have not seen one yet on this island this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that individuals are here already.
Locally, the great blue heron is often mistaken for a crane, but the bird is not a crane. Cranes are more robust, and they fly with their head and neck outstretched. If you just notice a few such details, you can identify the large birds we frequently see overhead more easily.
There are nesting colonies of these herons on Ironbound Island in Frenchman Bay and on Hardwood Island in Blue Hill Bay. Their large stick nests are often placed in small trees and shrubbery. Great blue herons tend to nest in the same area each year. They may repair or rearrange the nest a following year. Isolation of the nesting site is of great importance to them.
No baby heron would win a beauty prize; they actually could be called “guy,” but they do grow up to be quite elegant and stately birds. Watch for these herons from now on near any of our many island ponds and lakes and along the shore and in the marshes. These birds have a spearlike bill with which they capture their fish. Rarely does the bird miss its prey.
April is the month for warblers, and with the trees not fully leafed out, you often can see them easily. Keep your bird books or identification devices handy so you can identify each one. This is the time of year when they are in their breeding plumages and look their best. Myrtle warblers, now named “yellow-rumped warblers,” often are seen first, and the male does have a yellow rump. This warbler also has yellow or dull orange side patches. Yellow-rumped warblers are very fond of bayberries, and they look for and find insects in the spruce forests where they nest.
A red-winged blackbird arrived on Islesford last weekend and was seen feeding at a friend’s feeder out there.
During this winter, wood frogs have spent their time beneath stones or logs, but when spring awakens them, they head for the nearest small pond or other area where there is shallow water. This frog’s call can be heard even in the daytime. It sounds a bit like the quacking of a duck. It only carries for a short distance, unlike the far-reaching call of the tiny spring peeper.
Female wood frogs lay thousands of eggs in a rounded gelatinous mass from 2-4 inches in diameter. This is attached to a stick or other vegetation underwater. Of course, they don’t all hatch. Some are frozen by a sudden cold snap, or the pool may be so small it dries up prematurely, or the eggs may be eaten by predators. Without complications and if the water stays about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the eggs will hatch in less than two weeks. Once the eggs are laid, the adults leave the pond, and the eggs are left to develop independently.
Wood frogs are pretty amphibians with a coloring varying from dark brown to reddish brown to a coppery color in some cases. A dark facial mask is always characteristic.
Lots of interesting things are going on now in the natural world. Take time to get out and enjoy as much as you can.