SCORES & OUTDOORS: Raccoons back in the news…for the wrong reasons

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

A raccoon “washing” its food…

Raccoons and rabies have been in the news again, recently. It seems there has been a measurable increase in the number of reports of animal bites resulting in humans being treated for rabies.

A recent news report from WMTW-TV told of a woman who was attacked by a raccoon while walking along a wooded trail near her home in Hope. The raccoon managed to bite her on the thumb and scratch her arms while she drowned it in a nearby puddle. Hope Animal Control Officer Heidi Blood confirmed last week that the dead raccoon later tested positive for rabies by the Maine Center for Disease Control.

“Not to scare people,” Blood said, “but when there’s one, there’s typically another.”

She went on to say that just because there was one, and it was dispatched, doesn’t mean the risk is reduced. The risk is still there.

As early as last Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that the state of Maine has started dropping packets of vaccine into rural woods in efforts to eliminate raccoon rabies. The program is being funded in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s help, releasing 351,000 packets in northern Maine.

So far this year, 42 cases of oral rabies have been reported in 13 out of the 16 Maine counties. These also include incidences of people being bitten by rabid bats, raccoons, striped skunks, gray foxes, otters, domestic cats and woodchucks. And recently, police reported three individials were bitten by rabid red fox in Brunswick.

Rabies have been rare among pets and farm animals, but since its reintroduction in Maine in 1994, terrestial rabies has increased dramatically in Maine in the above mentioned animals. The last reported case of human rabies in Maine was in 1937.

When bitten by any wild animals, and rabies may be suspected, it is important to get to an emergency room as soon as possible. Humans can start to show symptoms within a few weeks, but often if takes a few months. According to Blood, “The number one thing we try to remind people of is that it’s 100 percent fatal if it goes untreated.”

…but they can also be vicious.

The woman in Hope has received six innoculations of rabies vaccine since the incident and is scheduled for her last shot this weekend.

Don’t believe the myth that raccoons are clean animals because they wash their food before eating. Their name actually comes from that tale. Its scientific name is, Procyon lotor. Lotor is the Latin word for “washer.” The fact is that raccoon have very narrow throats making it difficult to ingest foods. When they encounter food that is dry, they dip it in water to soften it so as to make it easier to swallow. They sometime will remove unwanted parts of the food with their front paws, giving the appearance of washing the morsel. Should a raccoon come across a mushy piece of fruit, it will gulp it down without dipping it in water.

Zoologist Clinton Hart Merriam described raccoons as “clever beasts,” and that “in certain directions their cunning surpasses that of the fox.” In a study by H. B. Davis in 1908, raccoons were able to open 11 of 13 complex locks in fewer than 10 tries and had no problems repeating the action when the locks were rearranged or turned upside down. Davis concluded they understood the abstract principles of the locking mechanisms.

Raccoons have also been part of the mythologies of the indigenous peoples of North America. Indigenous North American belief systems include many sacred narratives. Such spiritual stories are deeply based in nature and are rich with the symbolism of seasons, weather, plants, animals, earth, water, sky and fire. Traditional worship pracrices are often a part of tribal gatherings with dance, rhythm, songs and trance (e.g. the rain dance).

With their bandit-like black mask rings around their eyes, they are cute, especially the young. But never approach a raccoon, even if it is acting normally. Also, as a general rule of safety, never approach an animal in the wild, period. Remember, even though some people believe that any animal can be a pet, they are still animals, with very sharp survival instincts, and could view you as a threat. Stay sway from them. If they are acting irrationally, leave them, and contact your animal control officer of the warden’s service. Take the safe way.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

What is the recorded score of a forfeited baseball game?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS – Everybody loves to play a good game: Let’s see how you do

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I have an idea: let’s play a game! Everybody likes a game. We’ll call it – get a load of this ingenious title – Fact or Fiction!

Many of us have pets, and we also like to watch animals. Let’s ask some questions and see if you can tell if it is fact or fiction.

Bulls get angry when they see red?

Here are the sayings. The answers follow:

  • Bats are blind.
  • Some bees sting only once.
  • An owl is a wise bird
  • A turtle can walk out of its shell.
  • Crickets tell the temperature with their chirps.
  • Goats eat almost anything.
  • Bulls get angry when they see red.
  • Camels store water in their humps.
  • Rats desert a sinking ship.

Here are the answers:

  • Bats are Blind: Fiction – In the night sky, they seem to be blind. They fly back and forth in odd ways. Bats use their ears as well as their eyes to find their way at night, flying in different patterns as they gather insects in flight. They emit high-pitched sounds that echo back to them from objects, similar to radar.
  • Some bees sting only once: Fact – many kinds of bees can sting only once. A honeybee’s stinger has barbs on it and when they catch, they hold fast. The stinger breaks off and stays behind. The bee will die after losing its stinger. Queens, however, can sting multiple times. Its stinger has no barbs. Male bees, called drones, have no stinger and cannot sting at all.
  • An owl is a wise bird: Fiction – Some people think owls look wise because of their eyes. But for a bird its size, the owl has a tiny brain. An owl never moves its eyes to look for prey, but, instead, moves its whole head from side to side.
  • A turtle can walk out of its shell: Fiction – When people find an empty turtle shell on the ground, they may think a turtle left it behind and moved into a new one. A turtle can no more walk out of its shell than you can walk away from your ribs. The empty shells you may find on the ground are the remains of turtles that have died.
  • Crickets tell the temperature with their chirps… Fact – Crickets are animals whose body temperatures change with the temperature around them. On a hot day, crickets chirp so rapidly that it is hard to count the number of chirps. But on a cool day, crickets chirp much more slowly. You can easily count the times they chirp.
  • Dogs talk with their tails: Fact – When a dog wags its tail from side to side, the dog is happy and playful. But when a dog wags its tail up and down, it may be because it has done something wrong and expects to be punished. If a dog keeps its tail straight up, be careful, that is the signal that it may attack. Don’t run, just back away slowly.
  • Goats will eat almost anything: Fact – Goats will eat almost anything they can find. They have been accused of eating tin cans. But they are not really eating the metal; they are chewing the label to get at the glue underneath. They will eat string and paper, but would rather eat fruit, vegetables, grass and leaves of plants.
  • Bulls get angry when they see red: Fiction – A bullfighter waves a red cape before a charging bull. There are many stories which tell us that bulls become angry when they see red. The trouble with these stories is that bulls are color blind. It’s the motion of an object in front of it that angers a bull. Bulls will get angry if you wave anything in front of them.
  • Camels store water in their humps: Fiction – Camels store fat in the humps. The stored fat is used for energy when the camel doesn’t get enough to eat. But camels can go for days or even weeks without drinking water. Their woolly coats keep out the heat of the direct sunlight. The wool also keeps them from sweating and losing water too rapidly.
  • Rats desert a sinking ship: Fact – Rats will jump overboard if a ship is sinking. But that is true of any animal that can swim. Rats sometimes desert a ship even if it isn’t sinking. In the days of sailing ships, it was a common sight to see packs of rats jumping overboard. The ships were slow and would be at sea for months. By the time they returned to port, there was little food left for the rats so when the ship came close to shore, they would dive overboard and swim to land in search of food.

So, how did you do?

Roland’s trivia question of the wee:

What is the most common pitch thrown by a baseball pitcher.

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Challenge met: mystery moths identified, and a bonus

Bronze-copper butterfly (photo: John V. Calhoun)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Back in the June 21, 2018, issue of The Town Line, I showed a couple of photos of moths which I could not identify, and asked for help from our readership.

The following week, I received an email from John V. Calhoun, Research Associate, at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, Florida Museum of Natural History, at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. He has studied butterflies and moths for 45 years, and has authored many scientific publications on the subject.

His wife was born in Waterville, and they own a camp in Oakland where they visit for a few weeks each summer.

Baltimore Snout Moth, Hypena baltimoralis

Challenge A was a photo I took of a moth on my screen door at camp. I had never seen one before. John informed me, with the assistance of a colleague, James K. Adams, professor of biology, Dalton State College, in Dalton, Georgia, that it was a Baltimore Snout Moth, Hypena baltimoralis, which is a common species in much of the eastern United States. Adams is an expert at identifying many obscure moths, and is the long-time editor of the News of the Lepidopterists’ Society, which Calhoun served as president in 2016-17.

The caterpillars feed on maple trees. Maybe that is why I have not seen one at camp; there aren’t any maple trees around me. I am surprised I have not seen it at my home seeing that I have several maple trees on my property.

However, I can’t write too much about that particular moth because I could not find any information in all the research I have done. The internet has many photos and illustrations, but no information.

Io Moth closed

The second challenge, a moth that I photographed in 2015, was identified by John as the male Io Moth, Automeris io. Now, that moth I have seen before, just never in that position.

The Io moth is a colorful North American moth. It is found in a large part of the United States, and Canada.

Adult Io moths are strictly nocturnal, flying generally only during the first hours of the night. The females wait until nightfall and then extend a scent gland from the posterior region of the abdomen, in order to attract males.

Io Moth opened

The caterpillars are gregarious in all their instars, many times traveling in single file processions all over the food plant. As the larvae develop, they will lose their orange color and will turn bright green, having many spines. These stinging spines have a very painful venom that is released with the slightest touch.

Just this past week, John sent another photo. That of the Bronze Copper butterfly, which he photographed on June 29, in Benton. I guess you never know what you will find in nature. I have seen many different types of butterflies and moths, but again, never one like this.

Their range is widespread, from Alberta to northern Nevada in the west through to the east coasts of Canada and the United States. It is listed as a species of special concern in Connecticut, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Adults have been observed feeding from blackberry and red clover.

So, that is our lesson on moths and butterflies for this week. I continue to be intrigued by what actually goes on in the natural world around us. So many different species of bugs and animals that are either obscure to us or with which we have little contact.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

In the 2004 ALCS between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who was named the series MVP: Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, Derek Lowe, or Mariano Rivera?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: The shell-middens (what are they?) are trying to tell us something

shell-middens

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

This week I’m going to give up this space to a subject of very much interest. It came across my desk last week, written by Alan G. Button, and it is something that I think I should share with you. It begins:

Three feet! I say again… THREE FEET BY THE END OF THIS CENTURY! This is the new alarming projection for sea level rise reported to us by the evening news over the last few weeks. Wake up people—Al Gore has warned us… TWICE! And scientists around the world, not influenced by politics and financial manipulation, all agree.

My interest (as a volunteer since 200l) has been to study prehistoric shell-middens, only a small number of some 2,000 existing along our often dangerous coastline. And they have been and still are disappearing at alarming rates. Over the last ten years I have witnessed the aftermath of total destruction to at least six middens within the Cushing, Friendship and Waldoboro coastal floodplains. And there is no exemption for what I see ahead.

Shell-Middens (sometimes called ‘kitchen middens’) are the remains of two basic time periods: the Ceramic Period people (precursors to the Wabanaki tribes of today) and the Late Archaics. Dates on rare occasion may range as far back as 5,000 B.P. (before present) which may include the Red Paint People. But most remains are of the four Ceramic Period divisions which terminated when European diseases wiped out upwards of 90 percent of these coastal families during the late 1520s.

Shell-Middens come in all shapes and sizes. But it is their content of bone, small pottery shards, charcoal, numerous lithic types, and various shell types which have only begun to help us understand these cultures. Many questions still remain: including migration and trade routes, hunting traditions, winter survival, and the extent of social life and cultural beliefs. The testing of one charcoal sample costs $250.00 or more. And the testing and analysis of faunal/soil material within a lab just for one site would be in the hundreds of hours.

Protection? Unlike other states, none exists. And unlike research and protection of historic sites funded directly by state legislation… Pre-historic field research performed by a handful of volunteers like myself has no funding. Where are the ‘Field Schools’? Where are the mandates to retrieve vital dateable faunal and charcoal remains? It baffles me, even with a ‘12,000 Year History of Prehistoric Maine’ exhibition within our Maine State Museum, just how many people (even our own legislators) who do not know or understand what shell-middens are nor what they represent.

And what boundaries, besides the lack of money, do we face? Three… Logistics and manpower, especially to offshore islands, ‘Potters’ who seem to believe valuable artifacts may still be found (rarely, and the damage they do is outrageous), and restricted access by landowners who have no
valid reason other than their own personal ideals. One such site on the upper Medomak River is reported to contain at least 800 cubic meters of intact shell/soil matrix. This site has never been sampled. And a 1983 report states a 115 meter (377 feet) wide erosion plain existed within the tidal margin below this midden.

I could think of several colorful adjectives one may apply to this mindset. Should we not demand some form of responsibility? Should not landowners be required to share these educational venues? Have we not learned any lessons from our past with knowledge that has been fragmented, obscured, altered or totally omitted?

I find it strange that when a bridge, culvert or road upgrade takes place at an inland stream crossover, it is a state mandate to have a licensed archaeologist on scene. Yet no such oversight exists for shell midden degradation.

Coastal towns are facing two major types of erosion: a) Wash-over from storm surge and b) Undermining of glacial till from tidal turbulence. The second is the most damaging as it involves subsurface whirlpools during flood-tides skirting in and out of coves and rivers, gouging and undercutting shorelines. Site 17.66 on the west shore of the St George River totally disappeared from undermining during the winter of 2016-17 (estimated to have been 20M x 6M x 25cm). I found nothing but shell hash scattered across the shoreline during a spring inspection in 2017.

What are we going to do? I do not place blame on the hardworking department heads and former state lab techs (where I volunteer) dedicated to conserving former research. But it’s going to take money, man-power, and a research center dedicated to a 10-20 year project to collect this information—something I had proposed some ten years ago. Perhaps, as so often happens, we will wait until it’s too late. And for many sites, it already is!

Let me know folks, only 60 years to go. This is your state… and your history.

Alan G Button is a volunteer with the Mid-Coast Shell-Midden Research; abfirewalker@gmail.com.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

In 1967, Billy Rohr, of the Red Sox, pitched 8-2/3 hitless innings at the New York Yankees in his first major league appearance. Who got the hit that broke up the no-hitter?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: The proliferation of the turkey vulture in central Maine

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I remember as a young boy growing up and going to the “movies” at the old State Theater, on Silver St., in Waterville. It was the Saturday kids’ marathon. You would get to the theater at 10 a.m., and probably wouldn’t come out until dark. There were cartoons galore, news reels, several feature films, and even a commercial for popcorn in the lobby. (For 25-cents, you got admission to the theater, a bag of popcorn and soda – and get change back.)

One of the things I remember well, and are still my favorites today, were the old film noir westerns. The films were marked with poor lighting, corny sound effects and acting – but Gene and Roy could sing you a tune, and beat up the bad dudes. Pretty versatile guys to have around.

One scene would always be of a vulture circling overhead, signaling the presence of a corpse, or a carcass of a dead animal near a watering hole an indication of a poisoned pool.

Turkey vulture

I had never seen a real vulture. I thought they only existed where the cowboys roamed the western range.

Later in life, around the 1980s, I saw my first real vulture on top of French’s Mountain, in the town of Rome. However, recently I have seen a growing population of the turkey vulture in central Maine. First, on the Nelson Rd., in Vassalboro, and recently on Chase Ave., in Waterville, near the Delta Ambulance headquarters. Last Sunday, I saw four of them in the road.

Its range is from southern Canada to the southermost tip of South America.

The turkey vulture, Cathartes aura, or turkey buzzard as it is known in some North American regions, is a scavenger that feeds almost exclusively on carrion. It finds it food using its keen eyes and sense of smell, flying low enough to detect the gasses produced by the beginnings of the process of decay in dead animals. This is an uncommon ability in the avian world. The olfactory lobe of its brain, responsible for processing smells, is particularly large compared to that of other animals. Lacking a syrinx, the vocal organ of birds, its only vocalizations are grunts or low hisses. It nests in caves, hollow trees, or thickets. It has very few natural predators. In the United States, the vulture receives legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

It is illegal in the U.S. to take, kill or possess a turkey vulture. It is listed as a species of Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list. Populations appear to be stable, thus has not reached the threshold of inclusion as a threatened species, which requires a decline of more than 30 percent in 10 years or three generations.

The turkey vulture received its common name from the resemblance of the adult head of a wild turkey, while the name vulture is derived from the Latin word vulturus, meaning “tearer,” and is a reference to its feeding habits.

The wingspan of a turkey vulture is between 63 – 72 inches, has a length of 24 – 32 inches and weighs 1.8 to 5.3 pounds. Northern vulture are generally larger than the ones from its southern range. It is the most abundant vulture in the Americas. The global population of the turkey vulture is estimated to be 4.5 million individuals.

The turkey vulture is gregarious and roosts in large community groups, breaking away to forage independently during the day. It roosts on dead, leafless trees, and will also roost on man-made structures such as water and microwave towers. Though it nests in caves, it does not enter them except during the breeding season. The turkey vulture lowers its night time body temperature to about 93 degrees F, becoming slightly hypothermic.

Turkey vultures are perceived as a threat by farmers due to the similar black vulture’s tendency to attack and kill newborn cattle. Turkey vultures will not kill live animals, but will mix with other flocks of black vultures and will scavenge what they leave behind.

The breeding season varies according to region. In the north, it commences around May and continues into August. They do not lay eggs in a nest, but rather on a bare surface. Females generally lay two eggs, but sometimes one and rarely three. The incubation period lasts between 30 – 40 days. Chicks are helpless at birth. The young fledge at about nine to ten weeks, and family groups will remain together until fall.

Again, like many other species I have observed, more and more of these animals are beginning to show up in the urban surroundings, where in the past they were only seen in rural areas.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who holds the Red Sox record for the most home runs at the All-Star break?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: The irritating brown-tailed moth is back in the news

brown-tailed moth

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

The brown-tailed moth is back in the news. We covered this subject a couple of months ago, but it may warrant going over again. It is not a human friendly insect. This particular moth, Euproctis chrysorrhoea, is one that we probably could do without.

This moth, once native only to Europe, was accidentally brought to Massachusetts in 1897 on nursery stock, and soon spread to the rest of New England, Today, it is found only on Cape Cod and along the coast of Maine, where it is considered an invasive species.

The brown-tail moth is armed with defensive barbed hairs throughout its life span but especially during the caterpillar stage. These hairs break off, and for many people exposed, are susceptible to skin rashes, headaches, and even difficulty breathing. This caterpillar also has a huge host range of plants on which they feed.

The brown-tail moth caterpillar has tiny poisonous hairs that cause rashes similar to poison ivy on sensitive individuals. Rashes may develop when people come in direct contact with the caterpillar or indirectly from airborne hairs. The hairs become airborne by either being dislodged from living or dead caterpillars, or they come from cast skins with the caterpillar molts. Respiratory distress from inhaling the hairs can be serious.

Typical brown-tailed moth rash.

Caterpillars are active from April to late June. Hairs remain toxic throughout the summer but get washed into the soil and are less of problem over time.

The moths, which are attracted to light and fly at night, and active in July and August, have a wingspan of about 1.5 inches. The wings and midsection are solid white on both the male and female. The abdomen has brown on it, and the brown coloration extends along most of the upper surface of the abdomen in the male, whereas the top of the abdomen is white on the female, but the tuft of brown hairs are much larger.

The factors underlying brown-tail moth population dynamics are little understood and have been only thoroughly investigated by few researchers.

According to the Coastal Pharmacy & Wellness staff, the brown-tail moth has been getting plenty of attention over the past few years. This is because the numbers have spiked to a level that haven’t been seen in quite some time. Last year was a banner year and this year’s population is predicted to be even higher.

Throughout much of its life cycle, the moth sheds its toxic hairs. Eggs are laid in August-September, when a female can lay up to 400 eggs. They build their winter nest in the fall and remain there from September to June. In June and July, the larvae spin cocoons in which to pupate. The cocoons are full of toxic hairs. The moth emerges in July and August, mate and lay eggs to begin a new cycle. During this period, more hairs are shed to cover the egg mass.

The brown-tail moth’s excessive desire to eat, and its habit of feeding on many different kinds of foods, together with its tendency to reach outbreak densities, makes this species a major pest of hardwood forests and may also attack fruit and ornamental trees.

According to the Coastal Pharmacy and Wellness staff, moth spray or lotion, to combat the rash, are available by prescription from your doctor. There is no antidote for the toxins, so treatment is focused on relieving symptoms and eliminating further exposure. “Since many reactions occur over weekends, seeing a doctor may not be immediately possible. In these cases, you may find relief by soaking in a warm bath and applying calamine lotion or antihistamine cream.”

Pursuant to Maine Statute Title 22§1444 the Chief Operating Officer of the Maine Center for Disease Control can declare an infestation of brown-tail moths as a public health nuisance. The declaration may be made on the COO’s initiative or upon petition by municipal officers.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

With his win in game five of the 2013 World Series, Jon Lester of the Boston Red Sox became only the second Red Sox left-handed pitcher to win three World Series games. Who was the first?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Carnage on our highways; do the night critters have a chance?

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

OK, let’s shift gears this week and talk about our roads. No, not the ruts, potholes and whoopsy dos, nor the bevy of political signs that sprout along the roadway. I’m talking about the carnage on our highways.

Over the last week, I have seen, laying dead, either on the shoulder or squished in the travel lanes, skunks, porcupines, an occasional opossum, and a plethora of gray squirrels.

Is there an abundance of wildlife out there, are they widening their range in search of food, or is the change in their habitat forcing them to seek shelter elsewhere?

It is an interesting thought.

Of the many animals I’ve seen as road kill, gray squirrels are by far in the majority.

It might be because they are scatter hoarders. They hoard foods in numerous caches for later recovery. Some caches are temporary, especially those made near the site of a sudden abundance of food which can be retrieved within hours or days for reburial in a more secure site. Others are more permanent and are not retrieved until months later. Each squirrel is estimated to make several thousand caches each season. This would include a large range of territory for them to cover in order to have all these caches.

Skunks and porcupines are nocturnal creatures that generally only make appearance following night fall.

Although skunks have excellent senses of smell and hearing, they have poor vision, being unable to see objects more than about 10 feet away, making them vulnerable to death by road traffic. They already have a short lifespan, up to seven years, but most will live only up to a year.

Porcupines, which are mostly nocturnal, will forage during the day. They are slow-moving mammals that once exposed to the dangers of crossing a strip of asphalt, become susceptible to road collisions with autos.

Both the skunks and porcupines are dark in color, making them difficult to see in the dark, especially with some of today’s new cars. Older cars, with the standard types of headlights, illuminate the sides of the road at a longer distance, while the newer LED projection-type headlamps light up the roads in a more direct, straight-forward path, leaving the shoulders and aprons to the road a little darker.

All in all, for these denizens of the woods, when they venture out at night, they are no match for a 3,000-pound hunk of steel barreling down at them at 55 mph.

CHALLENGE

Now, here is a challenge for readers.

In the 20-plus years that I have been writing this column, I have come across a lot of creatures of nature that I have not been able to identify. Through the help of my contacts at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and doing countless hours of research, I have been able to bring to you many descriptions of these critters. But, in that time, I have come across two that even experts have not been able to help me. One was in 2013, and the other was just last weekend.

So, I am presenting to you, amateur entomologists and wannabes, these two for your perusal. Does anyone out there in The Town Line nation, know what these are? (Send us an email at townline@fairpoint.net or via our Contact page.)

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

This Red Sox pitcher became a verbal punching bag when he said, “What can I say? I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy.”

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Requiem for a squirrel: the decision that determined his fate

Squirrels often have to make snap decisions.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

There I was last Thursday, driving down the Cross Hill Road, in Vassalboro, minding my own business, listening to my Johnny Cash CD; just cruising on a beautiful, pleasant late spring afternoon, heading for camp.

That’s when it happened. A gray squirrel came darting out from the side of the road. He made a mad dash for the center line, stopping just short, undecided on what he wanted to do. He turned, looked my way. We made momentary eye contact.

Gray squirrels are a treat to watch. During their activities, they can be quite comical. They are acrobatic, agile, and extremely clever. Have you ever seen one stretching from a tree to a bird feeder? It almost defies the laws of gravity.

But they are actually scatter hoarders. It accumulates food in numerous small caches for later recovery. Some caches are temporary, especially those made near the site of a sudden abundance of food which can be retrieved within hours or days for re-burial in a more secure site. Others are more permanent and are not retrieved until months later. It has been estimated that each squirrel makes several thousand caches each season. The squirrels have very accurate memory for the locations of these caches, and use distant and nearby landmarks to retrieve them. Smell is used once the squirrel is within a few feet of the cache.

Squirrels are relentless workers, constantly getting their winter food supply in storage.

I have seen squirrels assume some strange postures in attempts to get into bird feeders, but my favorite one happened several years ago while my wife and I were visiting relatives in South Harpswell. They had a basketball-shape and size bird feeder hanging from an old oak tree. The ball had small feeding stations inserted from the outside, which would make it very difficult for squirrels to get into. I was sitting at the breakfast table watching as the squirrel climbed up the tree, went out on the limb, and jumped on the ball. Well, the ball being made of clear plastic was quite slippery, and the squirrel fell off. Undeterred, he went back up the tree, and proceeded out on the limb once more, jumped on the ball and immediately fell to the ground.

He would do this about three more times. It was at that point, even while I was wondering what his next approach might be, that I saw what you could describe as unimagineable, even unbelievable. He went back up the tree, ran out on the branch, and began to fool with the knot that hung the feeder. Now, from my vantage point, I couldn’t tell whether he was chewing at the rope, or attempting to untie it. Whatever he did worked, because in a matter of a minute or two, the ball came crashing to the ground, splitting wide open. The squirrel then went down the trunk, casually hopped over to the feeder, and commenced to helping himself to the seed that had spilled out onto the ground.

Did you know squirrels are one of very few mammals that can descend a tree head first? Although squirrels will fight among themselves for food, they also have been known to mob attack potential predators such as domestic cats.

They are also great communicators. In more noisy sites such as urban areas, they communicate with their tails and body movements. In the woods and more quiet environs, they will communicate by vocalizing. They can make a sound similar to the squeak of a mouse, a low pitched noise, a chatter and a raspy call.

Many times squirrels will “scold” me after I chase them from our feeders. They make it perfectly clear they are not happy.

They are kind of cute to watch, and pretty much mind their own business, unlike the more destructive red squirrel. So we live in some type of harmony. I respect their space if they respect mine.

Well, unfortunately for that squirrel last Thursday, once he turned and looked in my direction, he made a fatal mistake. He tried to return to the shoulder of the road. Had he elected to continue to the other side, he would have been fine. I felt badly, especially since I was listening to “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which MLB pitcher originally drafted by the Red Sox and traded to Baltimore before ever playing a game with Boston, returned for both the Red Sox titles in 2004 & 2007?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: If they arrive in May, why are they called June bugs?

Green June beetle (left), June bug (right)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Well, the first June bug of the year made its appearance at camp on Thursday, May 31, at 10:30 p.m. We were, after all, still in May.

Generally, June bugs, Phyllophaga, do make their appearance in mid- to late-May. So why are they called June bugs? It all depends on what you want to call them. They are also known as May beetles and June beetles. But, the name is derived from the fact that adult June bugs emerge from the soil at the end of spring or the beginning of summer.

Females bury their eggs just below the soil surface in the fall, they pupate and emerge in the spring. They hatch within three to four weeks and feed on grass and plant roots from several months to as long as three years. In spring, these grubs, as they are called, grow into pupae. Within three weeks, these mature into adult June bugs.

Grubs, when full grown, live in the soil and feed on plant roots, especially those of grasses and cereals, and are occasional pests in pastures, nurseries, gardens and golf courses. An obvious indication of infestation is the presence of birds, especially crows, peeling back the grass to get to the grubs. A way to test for the presence of these beetles is drenching an area of lawn with water, that will cause larvae to emerge at the surface.

The grubs have been known to attack vegetables and other garden plants, such as lettuce, raspberries, strawberries, potatoes and young ornamental trees. Maintaining a healthy lawn is a good step in deterring the grubs from establishing themselves.

June bugs are harmless. They do not bite, sting or spread disease. However, I did see one of my friends move faster than I have ever seen her move before, while sitting around a camp fire last weekend, when one landed on her. To be honest, it’s the natural reaction by most people, including yours truly.

Again, they are harmless, but because they are attracted to light they can make an evening sitting on your porch or deck a little unpleasant. Even if there is no light outdoors, they can be attracted to lights inside your home. I know at camp, when we’re spending time indoors after dark, they come ‘knocking’ on our windows. The sound of June bugs buzzing and bumping against window screens in early summer is a very common occurrence over many parts of the U.S. Adult June bugs are extremely clumsy, especially in the air.

Scientists are still undecided on the precise explanation for this behavior. Several thoughts have been advanced, but no single theory has come about that can account for why so many different nocturnal insect species gravitate to sources of light. June bugs usually are a half-inch to an inch and a quarter in length. They can fly and you will find them swarming around street lights at night.

The Pyrgotidae fly. (Picture courtesy of Johan Heyns)

Now, let’s do some “did you know.”

  • Exposure to light for longer intervals will kill June bugs. That is why you will find them dead in the morning under porch lights and windows.
  • Don’t leave a window open during May-June period. They will enter your house and die, leaving you with a mess to clean up. If they do enter, remember, they don’t bite and are harmless, just annoying.
  • There are over 200 different species of June bugs in the United States.
  • A natural enemy of the June bug is the pyrgota fly larva, which feeds on the beetles, eventually killing them.
  • The June bug larvae, called white grubs, are considered excellent fish bait, and are staples in the diets of native people in South America, Australia, and Asia.
  • Have a pet lizard or toad? The beetles make excellent, tasty food for them.

There is another popular June beetle that’s active during the day. It is the Green June Beetle, and are found in our region of the Northeast, extending from Maine to Georgia and as far west as Kansas. These are not very good for the garden either. The head, legs and under-body are shiny green, while its wings are dull metallic green, with slight gold contrast to its sides.

So day and night, during early summer, these beetles can be destructive to vegetation, and just plain annoying to humans.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

In what year did the Houston Texans join the National Football League?

Answer can be found here.

 

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Despite 50-year decline in numbers, there seems to be a lot more blue jays

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

While taking a break from my chores at camp over the weekend, I tried to figure out what my column was going to be about this week. Thoughts were coming hard until I noticed all around me were blue jays galore.

Other than knowing they are scavengers, noisy and the mascot of a professional baseball team in Toronto, I had to learn more about them.

The very recognizeable blue jay.

Blue jays, Cyanocitta cristata, are found in all kinds of forests but especially near oak trees. They are mostly found on the edges of forests as opposed to deep forest. They are common in both urban and suburban areas, especially where bird feeders are found.

Blue jays prefer tray feeders or hopper feeders on a post rather than a hanging feeder. We have found at camp that many of the jays we see are feeding on the ground under the hanging feeders. They prefer peanuts, sunflower seeds, and suet.

They also glean insects and take nuts and seeds in trees, shrubs and on the ground. Blue jays sometimes raid nests for eggs and nestlings, and sometimes pick up dead of dying adult birds. Stomach contents over the year are about 22 percent insect. Acorns, nuts, fruits, and grains made up almost the entire remainder. They hold food items in their feet while pecking them open. They also store food in caches to eat later.

Blue jays build their nests in the crotch or thick outer branches of a deciduous or coniferous tree, usually 10 – 25 feet above the ground. Male and female both gather materials and build the nest, but on average, the male does more gathering and female more building. Twigs used in outer part of the nest are usually taken from live trees, and the birds often struggle to break them off. The birds may fly great distances to obtain rootlets from recently dug ditches, fresh graves in cemeteries, and newly-fallen trees. Blue jays may abandon their nests after detecting a predators nearby.

The highly-recognizeable bird is known for its intelligence and complex social systems, and have tight family bonds. They often mate for life, remaining with their social mate throughout the year. Only the female incubates the eggs. The male provides all her food during incubation.

For the first 8 – 12 days after the nestlings hatch, the female broods them and the male provides food for his mate and nestlings. Females will share food gathering after that time. There is apparently a lot of individual variation in how quickly the young become independent. Blue jays communicate with each other by sound and by “body language,” using their crests. The lower the crest, the lower their level of aggression, and when they become more aggressive, the crest is high. When the blue jay squawks, the crest is virtually always held up.

Blue jays have a wide variety of vocalization, with an immense “vocabulary.” They are also excellent mimics. They have been known to mimic red-tailed hawks among other species of birds.

Some people don’t like blue jays because of their aggressive ways, but there are birds that are much more aggressive, like woodpeckers, grackles, mourning doves, mockingbirds and cardinals, throwing in gray squirrels in the mix. These species will actually keep blue jays away from feeders. So, to compensate for that, blue jays will imitate hawks when approaching a feeder to ward off the other, more aggressive birds, causing them to scatter. However, they usually return once they realize its a blue jay, and not a hawk.

Blue jay populations decreased by about 28 percent between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Also, Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of about 13 million birds, with 87 percent of them present in the U.S., and 13 percent in Canada. The bird is not listed on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds Watch List. They are not endangered.

The most frequent cause of death associated with humans come from attacks by dogs and cats.

There may have been a sizable decrease in their population over the last 50 years, but we’ve seen an increase in their presence at camp, and at home.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which baseball team won the first World Series championship in 1903?

Answers can be found here.