A change of place

I’m back in England for a few weeks, so you will notice a change of place.

It is autumn here, and although the colours are not as dramatic as in Maine, they have a subtle beauty:



Did you notice the egret flying across the photo above? Here it is in closeup, with its bright yellow feet:


The jackdaws are everywhere.


Their scientific name, Corvus monedula, tells you they are small corvids, and they are famed (like magpies) for stealing shiny objects and hiding them. They mate for life, and they are communal birds, often seen in large flocks, sometimes nesting in old buildings, like these sheep barns:


They are a Eurasian species, not native to the Americas. For some reason, while other corvids (especially crows and magpies) now frequent large cities, including London, I see them mainly in the countryside.  But they do like people:

Golfer With His Pet Jackdaw, 1933

A Golfer’s Unusual Companion: ‘Jack” the 16 months old Jackdaw pet of Mr AW Aitken of Ventnor, Isle of Wight, accompanies its owner everywhere he goes and is here seen perched on Mr Aitken’s shoulder whilst he has a round of putting.  ©1933  Hulton-Deutsch Collection via Getty Images

Read more at https://www.countrylife.co.uk/nature/jackdaw-bird-just-loves-people-178185#LHos2FZBO1rXdAum.99

PS Jackdaws were studied by the famous ethologist Konrad Lorenz, and he noted that in captivity they often make same-sex bonds. Bruce Bagemihl wrote extensively about same-sex liaisons in jackdaws and more generally in the animal world, and Bruce was once a linguist like me, so my two worlds collide again!

The genuinely last post

Well, famous last words. Today has been a red letter day, and so I just had to do one more post.

Sunrise. Words are inadequate.


A walk in the field by the barn, and a large Garter Snake, Thamnopis sirtalis, about 18 inches long, slides through the grass.


I come back later, and quietly wait for a closer look:*

Common Garter Snake

Garter snakes are not poisonous, and they tolerate the cold well, giving birth to up to 85 (!) live young as late as early October.

Then, the epiphany. All summer long, all my beaver ponds have been beaver-free zones, I have been mourning their absence. Now, on my very last day, they return. This tree is freshly cut:


And as I get ready to post this I have just discovered that he has finished the job.:


Down on the brook are branches from which the beaver has stripped the bark to eat the cambium. So I am thrilled, but also sad, because they have selected two of my apple trees as their victims, which is not good.

When I go back to the house, lo and behold underneath my tree is the first raccoon I have ever seen in daylight.


With that highwayman’s mask:


When I got too close, he fled up the tree. He went right up to the top fork. If you look closely there is small blob in the fork, and that’s him (or her).:


He hunkered down:


He settled in for a while, so I went inside to do some packing, and on my return, he was back at ground level, foraging.



And then he headed off:


As do I.

* I was once taught that poisonous snakes had keeled scales, and nonpoisonous ones didn’t, but this garter snake is non-poisonous, yet has keeled scales.

PS Autumnwatch in both the UK, and the US, have been using footage from my house. first of fighting red squirrels, and then nocturnal footage of flying squirrels and raccoons, all photographed by Mark Yates.. If you are interested, you can see it on BBC2 in the UK (and on iPlayer), and PBS in the USA.


Leading the cranes home*

[Winter is on its way: I woke this morning to a dusting of snow. So I will migrate back to the UK this weekend, and this is my last post from Maine for the season.]

After failing to find the sandhill cranes, Antigone canadensis, on foot,  generous friends took me out on the water for another try.


The cranes fly across every evening to their preferred nighttime roosts, and on schedule they appeared. The light was fading, and they are skittish so we couldn’t get too close, so all these photos will give you is an impression of their magic:


Across the treetops:

Sandhill cranes

To land in a reedy meadow, from where they alternately fed and watched us warily.

Sandhill cranes

They have only been breeding here for a few years, so they are still a novelty. At four feet tall they are stately birds who mainly breed further north in Canada, so we are lucky to have them. They will soon migrate south for the winter.

En route, we watched these yellow-rumped warblers walking on the lilypads catching tiny insects of some kind:

Yellow-rumped Warblers

And then the setting sun and the fall leaves turned the water into molten copper

Yellow-rumped Warblers

* My title is from a poem by the Chinese Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi, 白居易, AD 830, translated by Arthur Waley.
The western wind has blown but a few days;
Yet the first leaf already flies from the bough.
On the drying paths I walk in my thin shoes;
In the first cold I have donned my quilted coat.
Through shallow ditches the floods are clearing away;
Through sparse bamboos trickles a slanting light.
In the early dusk, down an alley of green moss,
The garden-boy is leading the cranes home.

And a portrait of the poet:


A prospect wild and wide*

At its southern end, our lake seeps out into a fen. Yesterday I went walking, or rather bushwhacking, into this very secluded world, in search of Sandhill Cranes.


In the thickets, on a fallen tree, I found a Bear’s Tooth Fungus. It has other names, including Lion’s Mane, and Pompom, and is of the genus Hericium. 


Then a large flock of perhaps thirty birds surrounded me in the treetops: American robins, Turdus migratorius. 

American robins

They are mainly solitary in the summer,  but they gather into flocks in the winter, usually a prelude to migration south, though some winter over. They are a type of thrush, and quite unlike the English robin.

American robins

When I reached the edge of one of the small shallow ponds, I found these three juvenile Pectoral Sandpipers, Calidris melanotos. 

Spotted Sandpipers

I misidentified them on eBird, and was helpfully corrected by a monitor from Cornell, to whom I am very grateful!

Spotted Sandpipers

And on my way out, a flock of smaller birds, White-throated sparrows, Zonotrichia albicollis. 

White throated sparrow

No cranes yet, but a cornucopia of other beauties.

Frost last night.

* My title is from The Fens, by George Crabbe. He was writing about the fens of eastern England, which are huge flat areas of fields divided by drainage ditches, but the line applies just as well to our local fen.

Charlotte cocooning

European Garden Spiders, Araneus diadematus, have what is called a holarctic distribution, throughout Northern Eurasia and North America. They are quite large, with females measuring up to 20mm (If you are a regular reader you have seen them weaving their webs in my posts).

During most of the summer their bodies are huge and swollen, like this:


But at the end of the summer it all changes. This new svelte female has laid her eggs in this orange cocoon, then woven a mesh over the top, and now guards them.


Here you can see the orange egg sac more distinctly, and the surrounding white net:


It is getting cold, and both these mothers will soon die, but the eggs (up to 800 of them each) survive all winter and hatch in the spring; I took this picture last May.


Here is a close-up of the spiderlings:


I think these common spiders must have been E.B. White’s inspiration for Charlotte.

The nerds among you might enjoy reading this detailed description of how she creates the egg sac and cocoon:

Before the female starts making her egg sac, she withdraws for several days. She then spins a thin layer of single, tightly-woven silk threads. The first layer is molded by her abdominal movements into a disk, known as a basal plate. Then she crawls underneath the basal plate and continuously turns around in circles spinning the cylindrical wall. The palps are held in contact with one side of this wall while spinnerets are placed on the opposite wall. After about two hours, the cylindrical wall grows to 5 mm in height. Cocoon size is directly related to the size of the spider, but not necessarily to the number of eggs it will hold. Females wait for a few minutes and begins to lay eggs and cover them in a tight pack of silk threads. This becomes the cover plate and the spider continues to add layers of thread to it. The loop mesh ultimately wraps around the entire surface of the egg sac. Females remain close to the cocoon for the next few days in case the threads need repairing. Females die a few days after the egg sac is built. The cocoon will appear unchanged externally while the spiderlings develop for a few months. The offspring emerge in spring and release fine threads of silk from their spinnerets to be carried off by the wind to new locations. Their journey through the air is called ballooning. Wherever each spider drops from the sky will be where its new life begins. (Dewey, 1993; Foelix, 1982; Preston-Mafham and Preston-Mafham, 1996)” from http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Araneus_diadematus/ 


As summer into autumn slips*

Fall is just about at its peak,


But summer returned yesterday, 81F (27C), and I swam in the lake (freezing).


My roses are still flowering on:


There are birds migrating through that I don’t usually see in midsummer, like this Yellow-rumped Warbler, Setophaga coronata, less elegantly but appropriately known as a butter-butt:


Deep in the woods by a tiny pool, all alone, I found a Solitary Sandpiper, Tringa solitaria. 

Solitary Sandpiper

I have always thought of sandpipers as birds of the seashore, but this one likes shallow freshwater ponds, backwaters, and even ditches. It breeds in the summer in Alaska and Canada, and is passing through Maine on its way to the Caribbean or the Amazon basin for the winter. Not a bad life.

But then I wake up to a morning like this one, and I think perhaps I don’t want to migrate anywhere after all.


* My title is the name of a poem by Emily Dickinson:

As Summer into Autumn slips
And yet we sooner say
“The Summer” than “the Autumn,” lest
We turn the sun away,

And almost count it an Affront
The presence to concede
Of one however lovely, not
The one that we have loved —

So we evade the charge of Years
On one attempting shy
The Circumvention of the Shaft
Of Life’s Declivity.

Fall food: Chapter II

After the vulture, you might prefer the distinctly cuddlier Eastern Chipmunk, Tamias striatus. This one was teetering round in the seedheads of my garden Nigella plants, clinging to the stalks and eating away.



At 2-5oz, or 66-150g, he was just light enough to get away with this, and he reminded me rather of a humungous dormouse. He is airborne, supported only by the flower stalks. You can see that the cheek pouches are beginning to fill up.


Every summer I train a chipmunk to eat out of my hand (very easy to do), and this summer he got brave enough to come to me even with my grandson on my lap, as you can see in this photo taken by my son..



Fall food: Chapter I

Fall is coming, and critters are eating or storing as much as possible against the hard times to come. Two posts on this theme. This first one may not be for everyone!


This Eastern Turkey Vulture was feasting on a grey squirrel roadkill, and flew up into a nearby tree when I drove by. I will spare you a photo of the roadkill, but here is the vulture:

Adult turkey vulture

It is fat and round, just like a turkey, and has a wing span of up to six feet.  It appears to have huge connected nostrils, but in fact what you see are the arches of a large bony superstructure that helps the vulture breathe even when it is feeding; the nostrils proper are tucked inside, well protected and out of sight.

Adult turkey vulture

Turkey vultures are unrelated to the vultures of Africa and Asia, and offer a good example of convergent evolution (After all, every region needs a carrion disposal system). In the Americas, they are highly successful, and are found from Southern Canada down to the southern tip of South America.

They are most definitely not songbirds: they lack a syrinx, so they can only hiss or grunt.

The last part of its scientific name, Catharses aura septentrionalis, puzzled me, because it sounded as though it was related to the number seven (as in Septimus). And indeed it is, by a rather circular route (root?). It turns out to be named after the seven stars which make up the Big Dipper, which of course points at the North Star. and so this Latin word came to mean “of the North”,  which is where this particular vulture lives.



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