Most birds start their families in the spring, but the colorful yellow-and-black goldfinches we so enjoy sometimes wait even into September to start their families. This is probably because the young are fed largely on semidigested seeds that the parents regurgitate directly into their mouths. Earlier in the season, there would not be enough seeds to do the job correctly. Goldfinches love companionship and gather year-round in small groups or large flocks. As the winter approaches, males will change their bright yellow feathers for dull winter colors, and then both males and females look alike. Most of our goldfinches stay here for the winter.
While doing a bit of weeding one day, I had the feeling that I was being watched. Sure enough, just a few feet away was a big yellow garden spider sitting in full view in the center of her web on a leafy spurge plant. She is a wicked looking beauty with black, yellow and orange, and her legs are banded with yellow or a reddish color. She guards well her eggs, which she laid in a large, snug round sac at her web’s edge. Although these eggs winter over in the sac, they do not emerge until spring to make webs of their own, feed and develop. The male will make his smaller web at the edge of the female’s web. Welcome them and enjoy them in your garden, for they are both interesting and useful creatures.
The floor of the woods is impressive now with an array of fungi in varying sizes, shapes and colors. As you move about outdoors, look for narrow, yellow, fingerlike mushrooms poking up through the soil. These will be Calaveras viscosa, commonly called “staghorn fungus.” They are definitely something to notice in autumn. There are also a number of coral-like fungi found on Mount Desert Island, ranging from pure white to various shades of yellow.
Fungi, as well as being interesting to see in our woods, are vitally important to nature’s housekeeping, for they are waste disposer organisms whose silent and often invisible activities break down and recycle the organic debris of the world. Without these, plants and animals would have buried themselves in their own waste eons ago. Since life began on Earth, fungi have been at work.
Red squirrels enjoy many of our mushrooms. Some they eat right away; others they store away in some secluded spot such as on a shelf in a shed or outhouse. Squirrels can eat many mushrooms that would be poisonous for humans. Turtles, too, consume amanitas, which are dangerous for us to eat.
Cranberries are ripe now and perfect for the picking. Unlike picking blueberries, you sometimes have to take to a canoe or kayak to collect cranberries. Whatever trouble you have to endure, the fruit is well worth gathering.
You may have noticed an abundance of flickers alongside the roads these days as they feast on the ants there. Flickers have very long tongues covered with a sticky gluelike substance that reach into the nest and pull out a tasty meal of ants. Flickers are quite noticeable these days as they feed on ants in preparation for their migration south.
Our resident woodpeckers are the downy and hairy woodpeckers, pileated woodpecker and the black-backed woodpecker. A few others are seen here occasionally but do not live here year-round. Anyone interested in the bird life of this island should definitely have the checklist for birds of Acadia National Park in their possession. It’s a very helpful list to own and keep in your bird book.
Now that the nesting season is over for our seabirds, we may be able to see gannets fishing off the shores of Mount Desert Island. During nesting season, these large seabirds are busy with family duties farther to the north. I have been able to visit their colonies many times, and the scene is colorful, noisy and exciting. Gannets are large, dramatic looking birds with beautiful blue eyes that remind me of a Siamese cat. They nest close together on top of the seaside cliffs. One of my favorite spots is in Newfoundland. There, we were able to walk out across a pasture and watch them a few feet away on a separate rocky cliff. When we looked down at the chasm between us and at the bird colony on its nearby “skyscraper,” we felt as if we were on top of our own skyscraper. Everywhere we looked were rocks and birds down below and overhead. Our presence did not seem to bother the large colony at all. Crows and ravens flew about, always looking for a chance to grab a bird’s egg or young bird. Eagles, too, soared overhead and waited for a chance to grab an easy meal.
Smaller birds also nested on the rocks. In the fields that we walked across to get to the colony, we often saw the remains of petrels, a small seabird only coming to land to nest. They nest in burrows underground, but predators sometimes grab one when the parents exchange nesting duties. Once their young hatch, they spend their life at sea. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of petrels when you take a boat ride a good distance from our shores. Petrels nest on the Duck Islands readily seen from the Seawall area.