SCORES & OUTDOORS: Surprised by a northern ringneck snake

Left, Northern ringneck snake. Right, Northern ringneck snake
under side.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

A friend of mine, who lives in Sidney, sent a text message with the photo of a snake he found under his wood pile. He said he had never seen one before. Neither have I. The snake was black with a bright yellow ring around its neck. What he found is fairly common.

Diadophis punctatus, commonly known as the ring-necked snake or ringneck snake, is a harmless species of snake found throughout much of the United States, central Mexico, and south-eastern Canada. Ring-necked snakes are secretive, nocturnal snakes, so are rarely seen during the day time. They are best known for their unique defense posture of curling up their tails, exposing their bright red-orange posterior, ventral surface when threatened.

Ring-necked snakes are believed to be fairly abundant throughout most of their range, though no scientific evaluation supports this hypothesis. Scientific research is lacking for the ring-necked snake, and more in-depth investigations are greatly needed.

Ring-necked snakes are fairly similar in morphology throughout much of their distribution. Its dorsal coloration is solid olive, brown, bluish-gray to smoky black, broken only by a distinct yellow, red, or yellow-orange neck band.

Size also varies across the species’ distribution. Typically, adults measure 10–15 inches in length,

Ring-necked snakes have smooth scales with 15–17 scale rows at midbody. Males typically have small tubercles on their scales just anterior to the vent, which are usually absent in females.

Ring-necked snakes usually mate in the spring.

Ring-necked snakes are fairly common throughout much of the United States extending into southeastern Canada and central Mexico. Eastern populations cover the entire Eastern seaboard from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, in Canada, continuous through the Gulf Coast of Texas. Distribution moves inland into northern Minnesota, continuing diagonally through the U.S. to include all of Iowa, eastern Nebraska, and most of Kansas. In the western U.S., the distribution is significantly less continuous, with spotty, distinct population segments through most of the Pacific Northwest. Populations extend from south-central Washington continuing along the extreme West Coast into Mexico. Population segments extend inland into western Idaho, through southern Nevada, into central Utah, and continuing south through Arizona and central Mexico.

Ring-necked snakes occur in a wide variety of habitats. Preference seems to be determined by areas with abundant cover and denning locations. Northern and western subspecies are found within open woodlands near rocky hillsides, or in wetter environments with abundant cover or woody debris.

Since it is a woodland reptile, it can also commonly be found under wood or scraps. Because of hot weather, they tend to make holes and burrows, or they hide under rocks or any suitable material. They are normally found in flatland forests. Though they prefer to remain away from human-made structures, ring-neck snakes are not afraid to utilize urbanized areas as refuge from predators.

The diet of the ring-necked snake consists primarily of smaller salamanders, earthworms, and slugs, but they also sometimes eat lizards, frogs, and some juvenile snakes of other species. The frequency at which prey species are chosen is dependent on their availability within the habitat. Ring-necked snakes use a combination of constriction and venom to secure their prey. In a study analyzing the dietary habits of this species, age, amount of food consumed, and temperature were conditions that highly affected digestion. The snakes do not have a true venom gland, but they do have a structure called the Duvernoy’s gland derived from the same tissue. The venom is produced in the Duvernoy’s gland located directly behind the eye. It then drains out of an opening at the rear of the maxillary tooth. Ring-necked snakes first strike and then secure the prey using constriction. Next, they maneuver their mouths forward, ensuring the last maxillary tooth punctures the skin and allowing the venom to enter the prey’s tissue. The secretion significantly affects the righting response of the prey. Ring-necked snakes are rarely aggressive toward larger predators, suggesting their venom evolved as a feeding strategy rather than a defense mechanism. Rather than trying to bite a predator, the snake winds up its tail into a corkscrew, exposing its brightly colored belly.

Ring-necked snakes are primarily nocturnal or can be found at twilight, though some day time activity has been observed. Individuals are sometimes found during the day, especially on cloudy days, sunning themselves to gain heat. Yet, most individuals lie directly under surface objects warmed in the sun and use conduction with that object to gain heat. Though ring-necked snakes are highly secretive, they do display some social structure, but the exact social hierarchies have never been evaluated. Many populations have been identified to have large colonies of more than 100 individuals, and some reports indicate some smaller colonies occupy the same microhabitats.

If you should see one, it’s harmless to humans.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who were the Boston Red Sox’ “Gold Dust Twins” in the 1970s?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Hunter Praul’s love of nature involves slimy and scaly creatures

Hunter Praul

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

This came across my desk last week, and I thought it would make a good story for this week’s column.

Growing up in China, Maine, Hunter Praul said he always had an interest in exploring the outdoors, especially for reptiles and amphibians. He became an Eagle Scout, but even outside of his troop outings, he would find himself in forests, lakes and stream banks looking for frogs, toads, turtles and anything else he could find.

As a student researcher at the University of Maine, Praul has taken his love for nature’s slimy and scaly creatures and applied it to the mission of conservation in Maine.

When Praul graduated from high school, he was named to the Maine Top Scholars program, which provides full tuition and research opportunities for the highest achieving high schoolers in the state to attend the University of Maine.

Since early spring 2022, Praul has worked on a variety of turtle conservation research projects in the lab of Matthew Chatfield, assistant professor at the School of Biology and Ecology. Praul’s primary project aims to record the musk turtle population on the nearby Pushaw Lake, which is thought to be one of most northern (if not the northernmost) parts of the species’ habitat range.

“It would be interesting to get data and information on the most northern population to see if there are differences from the southern ones or even just more southern in the state, although there hasn’t been much research on them, especially in Maine,” Praul says.

Every month for the past couple months, Chatfield and Praul have headed out to three different plots near Gould’s Landing to lay six sardine-baited traps at each, strategically placing them at different levels of vegetation and depths along the shore. For that week, they return every morning to check the traps, repair any damage wrought by hungry raccoons or snapping turtles, and record their observations.

“I have worked with thousands of students in the classroom and dozens in a field or mentoring capacity and I have to say Hunter [Praul] is probably the most meticulous student I have ever met,” Chatfield says. “Every word and number on the data sheet gets recorded exactly right. He’s definitely one of the strongest undergraduate researchers I have come across.”

Praul admits, though, that he hasn’t had much luck finding musk turtles this summer. He has only found one, though he has seen plenty of the common painted turtles throughout the course of his study.

“We might be in the wrong spot in the lake, but there also might not be as many in the lake as we originally thought,” Praul says. “We’re taking a little break and we’re going to try again at the end of this summer to see if there’s a seasonal change in numbers.”

Praul is still hoping to use the musk turtle project for his senior capstone project, but if doesn’t find enough musk turtles to draw any substantive conclusions about the Pushaw Lake population, he will use data from a graduate project in Chatfield’s lab about wood turtles. Praul has been assisting graduate students with fieldwork using radiotelemetry to observe and record the nesting behavior of wood turtles, a heavily trafficked and internationally listed endangered species that purportedly has a stronghold in Maine.

Almost every week, Praul will join a graduate student researcher at their streamside site; the exact location is confidential, to protect the highly-trafficked turtles. They use a receiver to find the turtles observed for that study, which are tagged with radio telemeters, and record environmental and behavioral data about their subjects.

Turtles aren’t the only animal that Praul interacts with for this research, either.

“To help with finding wood turtles, there is a dog that has been trained to find them,” Praul says. “Sometimes her handler [Lindsay Ware of Science Dogs of New England] and I take her out to go sniffing through the grass and stream. If she finds a different species, she’ll pass on it, and if she finds a wood turtle, she’ll just stand over until we get there.”

The dog’s name is Chili Bean, Chili for short. Some of the wood turtles have names, too, like Crowley, Outlaw and Jennifer Lawrence — to make them easier to identify in the field, of course.

Outside of his herpetology projects, Praul also works at the UMaine Environmental DNA Laboratory conducting lab procedures. He said it’s “very interesting” and “cool to do,” but he prefers studying the natural world on a larger scale.

Praul plans to graduate this spring after his third year at the University of Maine. He isn’t exactly sure what he will do after that, but one thing is for sure: he wants to work with animals.

“I definitely still say herpetology is my main interest, but I also basically have an interest in all animals,” Praul says. “It makes it a little bit harder to choose something if there are so many options.”

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which pitcher is the all-time saves leader for the Boston Red Sox?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: The elusive pileated woodpecker, not to be confused with ivory-billed

pileated woodpecker (left), ivory-billed woodpecker (right)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

You catch a fast-moving, swooping bird navigate through the thick forest of trees. It looks more like a shadow. What was that? It lands on the trunk of a nearby tree, and begins a slow, rolling whacking sound against the bark of that dead tree. You look closer, it’s a pileated woodpecker.

Although very common in the eastern United States, it can sometimes be quite elusive. You don’t generally see them often, because they prefer the protection of dense deciduous or coniferous forests.

The pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, lives in Canada from British Columbia east to Nova Scotia. It can be found in most areas of the eastern United States, and west from Washington state south to California and east to Idaho and North Dakota.

Their numbers have increased from 1966 to 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding popultion of 1.9 million with 67 percent living in the U.S. and 33 percent in Canada.

The reason for the subject of this bird this week is the numerous photos that readers have been sending to this newspaper.

I have seen several of these birds around camp, and even saw one, once, sitting on an apple tree stump in my backyard, in the middle of Waterville.

The pileated woodpecker is one of the biggest forest birds on the continent. It is close in size to the crow.

They drill distinctive rectangular-shaped holes in rotten wood to get at carpenter ants and other insects. They are loud with whinnying calls. They also drum on dead trees. There flight is undulated (a bounding motion) as opposed to other birds straight flight paths.

Besides carpenter ants, pileated woodpeckers like woodboring beetle larvae, termites and other insects such as flies, spruce budworm, caterpillars, cockroaches and grasshoppers. They will also eat wild fruits and nuts. However, ants comprise 40 percent of their diet. Occasionally, you will find a pileated woodpecker at backyard feeders for seeds or suet.

Building a nest is quite a construction project that can last up to six weeks. The male begins excavating the nest cavity and does most of the work. The entrance hole is oblong rather than the circular shape of most woodpecker holes. For the finishing touches, the bird climbs all the way into the hole and chips away at it from the inside. The female begins to contribute as the nest nears completion. The cavity depth can be from 10 to 24 inches.

Of course, then you have the disagreement on how to pronounce the name. Well, in actuality, it can be pronounced two ways. You can use he soft “i” as in pill-ee-ated, or the hard “i” in pile-ee-ated. So, now we should have no more arguments about that subject.

Many people, though, confuse the pileated woodpecker with the ivory-billed woodpecker. The ivory-billed woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in North America, other than the imperial woodpecker of Mexico, which is feared to be extinct. The pileated is the second largest. Because of habitat destruction and, to a lesser extent, hunting, the numbers of ivory-billed woodpeckers, Campephilus principalis, have dwindled to the point where it is uncertain whether any remain, though there have been reports that they have been seen again, in Florida and Arkansas, although nothing has been substantiated. According to various sources, including the Cornell University Lab on Ornithology, almost no forests today can maintain an ivory-billed woodpecker population. Ivory-billed woodpeckers were most prominent in the southeastern U.S.

So, if you see that large woodpecker in Maine woods, you are most probably seeing a pileated woodpecker.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which Boston Red Sox player holds the club record for intentional walks, Wade Boggs, Carl Yastrzemski, or David Ortiz?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: The summer sound of the cicada


Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

While browsing through some old emails recently, I noticed one that I had planned to respond to, but as often happens, I was sidetracked and never got back to it. It was an email with photos of cicadas with an inquiry. I apologize to that person for not getting to this sooner.

Cicadas are green bugs, usually one to two inches in length with prominent eyes set wide apart, short antennae and clear wings. They have an exceptionally loud song, produced not by stridulation (making shrill or chirping sounds by rubbing certain body parts together), but by vibrating drumlike tymbals rapidly.

The “singing’ of male cicadas is not stridulation such as many familiar species of insects produce, like crickets, for example. Instead, male cicadas have a resilin structure call a tymbal below each side of the anterior abdominal region. Contraction of internal muscles buckles the tymbals inwards, thereby producing a click; on relaxation of the muscles, the tymbals return to their original position, producing another click. By rapidly vibrating these membranes, a cicada combines the clicks into apparently continuous notes. Only the males “sing.” However, both males and females have membranous structures called tympana by which they detect sounds, the equivalent of having ears.

To the human ear, it is often difficult to tell precisely where a cicada’s song originates. The pitch is nearly constant, the sound is continuous to the human ear, and cicadas sing in scattered groups.

The question posed was as to whether it was a periodic cicada, which spend most of their lives as underground nymph, emerging only after 13 to 17 years. This may reduce losses by starving their predators and eventually emerging in huge numbers that overwhelm and satiate any remaining predators.

At least 3,000 cicada species are distributed worldwide with the majority of them being in the tropics. Most are restricted to a single biogeographical region and many species have a very limited range.

Many of North American species are in the genus Neotibicen: the annual or jar fly or dog-day cicadas (so named because they emerge in late July and August). The best-known North American genus, however, Magicicada, have an extremely long life cycle of 13 – 17 years, suddenly and briefly emerging in large numbers. When this phenomenon occurs, the noise emitted by the cicadas is deafening.

After mating, the female cuts slits into the bark of a twig where she deposits her eggs. When the eggs hatch, the newly-hatched nymphs drop to the ground and burrow. Cicadas live underground as nymphs for most of their lives at depths down to about eight feet. Nymphs have strong front legs for digging and excavating chambers in close proximity to roots where they feed on xylem sap (the woody vascular tissue of a plant). In the process, their bodies and interior of the burrow become coated with anal fluids. In wet habitats, larger species construct mud towers above ground in order to aerate their burrows. In the final instar, they construct an exit tunnel to the surface and emerge. They then molt (shed their skins) on a nearby plant for the last time, and emerge as adults. The exoskeleton remains, still clinging to the bark of the tree.

The long life cycles may have developed as a response to predators, such as the cicada killer wasp and praying mantis. A specialist predator with a shorter life cycle of at least two years could not reliably prey upon the cicadas.

Other predators include bats, spiders and robber flies. Cicadas are fast flyers and can escape if disturbed, and they are well camouflaged. They are difficult to find by birds that hunt by sight.

Cicadas have been featured in literature since the time of Homer’s Iliad. They are also mentioned in Chinese and Japanese literature. Cicadas are also a frequent subject of haiku, where, depending on type, they can indicate spring, summer or autumn.

Cicadas have been used as money, in folk medicine, to forecast the weather, to provide song (in China), and in folklore and myths around the world.

Cicadas feed on sap; they do not bite or sting in a true sense, but may occasionally mistake a person’s arm for a plant limb and attempt to feed. They are not a major agricultural pest but in some outbreak years, trees may be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of females laying their eggs in the shoots.

The periodical cicada, which takes 13-17 years to emerge, does not exist in Maine. The Maine cicadas are the annual or dog-day species, which emerge in late July and August. It is common to discover a cicada’s shed exoskeleton on a tree (in Maine, at least) than it is to find an actual cicada. That it because they are strong fliers that spend their time high in the trees, so without the mass emergences that take place in other regions of the country, one is not very likely to encounter one in Maine very often, making them a thing of curiosity for anyone unfamiliar with them.

I have seen cicadas at my camp, but only on a few occasions.

By the way, cicadas are the critters you hear buzzing in late summer. Old farmers’ lore states that the first killing frost of the season will occur 90 days following the first sounds of the cicada. We heard the first buzzing of the cicada on July 22, which means the first killing frost will occur around October 22. Can’t you just wait?

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which former Red Sox outfielder went on to become a NASCAR truck series driver following his retirement from baseball after the 1996 season?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Swans are sighted on west shore of Webber Pond


Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

It has been reported that a bevy of swans has been spotted on Webber Pond. Interesting. So I had to investigate. Oh, by the way, a bevy of swans is when they are on the ground. While in flight they are called a wedge.

The swan is known around the world for its beauty, elegance, and grace.

The swan has the ability to swim and fly with incredible speed and agility. This bird is also very intelligent, devoted to its mate, and highly aggressive about defending its young. They are a common sight in temperate and colder climates around the globe.

The English word “swan” is also shared with the German and Dutch. It likely has its roots in the older Indo-European word swen, which means to sound or to sing.

This bird is much faster on land than you might suspect with speeds of 22 miles an hour. In the water, it can also achieve speeds of around 1.6 miles per hour by paddling its webbed feet. But if they stretch out their wings, then swans can let the wind carry them at much higher speeds while also saving energy.

These birds feature prominently in human mythologies and arts around the world. Some of the most famous stories involve metamorphosis and transformation. A Greek legend claims that the god Zeus once disguised himself as a swan. The famous 19th century Tchaikovsky ballet Swan Lake, which derived from Russian and German folk tales, is the story of a princess transformed into a swan by a curse. And of course, the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Ugly Duckling is about a duck that transforms into a swan.

Swimming gracefully through the water, these birds are an impressive spectacle whose characteristics include a large body, a long and curved neck, and big feet. Each species has different colored plumage. The common mute swan is almost completely covered in white feathers except for an orange bill and some black markings on the face.

These birds rank as the largest waterfowl and among the largest birds in the world.

Among these birds’ most remarkable social characteristics are the intense bonds they form with one mate for life. Unlike many other species of birds (even the closely related geese and duck), this has a few distinct advantages. First, it allows the pair to learn from their reproductive failures and develop better strategies. Second, the couple will share several duties, including the construction of nests, which they build out of grasses, branches, reeds, and other vegetation. This makes them far more effective than it would be on its own. Third, because of their long migratory routes, they have less time to acquire a mate, so the lifelong bond actually saves them time.

These birds are quite defensive animals that will do anything to protect their young. To drive off threats, they will engage in a display called busking, which involves hissing, snorting, and flapping with their outstretched wings. Due to their relatively weak bones, this display is largely a bluff that has little force behind it, but it doesn’t stop them from gloating. After driving off a predator, they make a triumphant sound. They also communicate through a variety of other vocalizations that emanate from the windpipe or the breastbone, including in some species a geese like honk. Even the so-called mute swan can make hissing, snoring, or grunting sounds.

After the breeding season, the bird migrates to warmer climates in the winter by flying in diagonal V formations with around 100 individuals. When the lead bird tires, another one takes its place at the front. These birds can be either partially migratory or wholly migratory depending on where they nest. The fully migratory species typically live in colder climates and may travel the same route thousands of miles every year toward warmer climates.

These birds are endemic to ponds, lakes, rivers, estuaries, and wetlands all over the world. Most species prefer temperate or Arctic climates and migrate during the colder seasons. The common mute swan is native to Europe. It was later introduced into North America (where it flourished).

Swans are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and other animals. When swimming in the water, it feeds via a method called dabbling in which it flips upside down and reaches down with its long neck to the vegetation at the bottom of the floor. The bird can also come up onto land in search of food.

These bird’s large size, fast speeds, flying ability, and rather aggressive behavior (at least when threatened) are a deterrent for most predators, but the old, ill, and young (especially the eggs) are sometimes preyed upon by foxes, raccoons, wolves, and other carnivorous mammals. Habitat loss, pollution, and overhunting have all posed a persistent threat, but they can adapt quite well to human habitations, and the cultivation of ponds and lakes for local wildlife has kept population numbers high. In the future, swan habitat and migratory patterns will be affected by climate change.

Thanks to years of protection, the swan genus as a whole are in excellent health. According to the IUCN Red List, which tracks the population status of many animals around the world, every single species of the swan is listed as least concern, which is the best possible conservation prognosis. Population numbers, though not known with precise accuracy, appear to be stable or increasing around the world. The trumpeter swan endemic to North America once fell to as little as 100 birds in 1935, but it has since been rehabilitated.

Swans have symbolized different things to different people. They were a symbol of religious piety in ancient Greece. They were revered for their purity and saintliness in Hinduism. And because of their lifelong bonds, they’ve also symbolized love and devotion around the world.

The common phrase “swan song,” which means a mournful call at the moment of the swan’s death, appears to be a myth. It is still regularly used in modern English to signify a final graceful exit, but the origin of this belief is not well understood. According to the author Jeremy Mynott, who wrote a book about birds in the ancient world, the phrase might have to do with the swan’s connection to Apollo, the god of prophecy and music. The philosopher Plato believed that the swan song was a “metaphorical celebration of the life to come.” Rather than bewailing their own deaths, Plato writes, the swans are “happy in the knowledge that they are departing this life to join the god they serve.” Other ancient authors were skeptical of the swan song and sought to debunk it. More recently, some scientists have tried to find a more rational and scientific explanation for this belief, but more likely it’s based entirely on symbolism and myth.

Despite their intense devotion to each other, swans do not die from grief. This appears to be a myth derived from a dubious ancient source. If a mate dies prematurely, then the surviving swan will usually find a new mate. What they feel after a mate dies is not entirely clear, since we cannot know fully what they are thinking.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which shortstop’s league-leading 209 hits helped him win the 1997 rookie of the year award?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: DNA verifies another wolf killed in New York

Trail cameras set up by MWC captured these images. (photos courtesy of John Glowa)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

This week, I’m going to give my space to John Glowa Sr., of the Maine Wolf Coalition, with an update on the mounting evidence that wolves are attempting a comeback in the Northeast:

by John Glowa Sr.

DNA analysis of an 85-pound canid shot by a New York hunter in December 2021, has verified the animal to have been a wolf. The animal was killed in central New York and the hunter posted photos of the animal on social media. At the time that it was killed, wolves had been removed from the federal Endangered Species list. They have since been reinstated to the list after a successful lawsuit by wildlife advocates.

In a collaborative effort between the Northeast Ecological Recovery Society (NERS) and the Maine Wolf Coalition (MWC), the hunter graciously provided tissue samples of the animal for DNA analysis, some of which were sent by NERS at considerable expense to the Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensic Centre at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. We thank the hunter for his cooperation, without which we would not have gotten samples for analysis. The findings concluded that the animal was effectively 100 percent wolf with DNA from Great Lakes wolves, Northwest Territories gray wolves and Eastern wolves, in decreasing order of DNA percentage. The complex nature and purity of the wolf DNA may be consistent with a wild wolf that dispersed from Canada where various wolf populations are known to intermingle.

It has long been wrongly believed that the St. Lawrence River and surrounding area serve as a barrier to wolf dispersal. This animal is the latest of at least ten wolves known to have been killed south of the St. Lawrence River since 1993 which includes wolves killed in Day, New York, in 2001, and Sterling, New York, in 2005. Other wolves have been killed in Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, New Brunswick and Québec. MWC, through our own research, documented the first live Eastern wolf in Maine in through scat we collected in 2019.

The presence of wolves in New York is to be expected, given the state’s proximity to documented wolf range in Canada and its abundant habitat and prey. There are tens of thousands of square miles of potential wolf habitat in the northeast, much of it in New York, which makes the northeast ideal for wolf recovery. In fact, wolves live just sixty miles from the New York border, a distance that a dispersing wolf could travel in a day or two.

The New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) has long denied the presence of wolves in the state. NYSDEC agents reportedly took tissue samples of the animal for DNA analysis but the agency has issued no statement regarding their results.

The killing of this animal is just the latest stone in a growing mountain of evidence proving that wolves are attempting to recolonize the northeast U.S. and maritime Canada south of the St. Lawrence River. It is past time for the state and federal governments to take action to protect wolves in the northeast. Denying their existence, failing to conduct the necessary research to determine their status, and refusing to give them the protection to which they are entitled are all contrary to state and federal law and the intent of the Endangered Species Act.

For more information, contact: Northeast Ecological Recovery Society, Joseph Butera 83-37. 267 St., Floral Park, NY 11004, 917-855-4906: email:; or Maine Wolf Coalition, John M. Glowa, Sr., 30 Meadow Wood Drive, South China, ME 04358, 207-660-3801: email:

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Where are the male ruby-throated hummers?

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (June 9th, 2008, Our house in Brandon, Canon 20D, 400 5.6L)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Back in May, my wife and I moved to camp for the summer. It’s always great to leave the city and live in the serenity by the lake for about five months.

And, on that Sunday, we were greeted by my wife’s favorite bird, the ruby-throated hummingbird. It was nice to see the little critters back with us.

As usual, the rule of thumb for their return from the south is around the middle of May.

But, since then, a phenomenon has occurred. Although we see a multitude of female hummers, as of last Friday, we had not seen a single male. Finally, on Saturday, one appeared, briefly mind you, and stayed about 2.5 seconds, then was gone. We have not seen another since. Kind of a mystery to us.

The ruby-throated hummingbird, Archilochus comumbris, the only hummingbird species found in Maine, winters between southern Mexico and northern Panama. During their migration south in the fall, usually mid-September, older male and female birds are better prepared for long-distance flight than first-year birds by having higher body weights and larger fuel loads.

Adults of the species are not social, other than courtship, which lasts a few minutes, they lead solitary lives. They do not migrate in flocks, so individual birds may spend the winter anywhere in this range where the habitat is to their liking. They probably go to the same place every winter.

While we’re talking about their migration, let’s put a myth to bed. The myth states that hummingbirds hitch a ride on the backs of geese as they migrate south. The legend is entertaining, but false. Hummingbirds and Canada geese migrate at different times and to different locations. It is also a fact that not all hummingbirds migrate south for the winter.

Following the mating, the male departs and the female provides all parental care.

When it’s time to return north to their breeding grounds during the spring migration, portions of the population fly from the Yucatan Peninsula, in Mexico, across the Gulf of Mexico, first arriving in Florida and Louisiana. That in itself is an amazing feat. How can such a small creature travel the 500 miles nonstop over water? It would seem the caloric energy would far exceed the hummingbird’s body weight of 0.11 ounces. Research has discovered the tiny birds can double their fat mass in preparation for their gulf crossing, then expend the entire calorie reserve from fat during the 20-hour crossing when food and water are unavailable.

During the courtship displays, they make ticking sounds with their wings, and shuttle side-to-side in flight. I once witnessed a male hummingbird during courtship by flying, rather rapidly, in a U-shaped pattern, beginning at the top of the inverted arch, flying downward, circling back up to the same height as it began, and back again, several times. It was pretty impressive to watch.

Hummingbirds have one of the highest metabolic rates of any animal. During flight, their oxygen consumption per gram of muscle tissue is approximately 10 times higher than that seen in elite human athletes.

They feed frequently during the day. When temperatures drop, especially on cold nights, they may conserve energy by entering hypothermic torpor (the process of lowering their body temperature to conserve energy).

During their hovering at feeders, the hummingbird’s wings beat up to 80 times per second. They are also the only bird that can fly backwards. Once, while my wife was sitting on the deck near a potted geranium plant, a hummingbird came to feed. It got so close she could actually feel the cold breeze coming off the bird’s fluttering wings.

Hummingbirds almost never stop. Although I have seen them sit on a perch at the feeders. They spend nearly all of their time in the air. Their legs are so small and weak, they typically can’t walk at all. But in the air, they are masters. They can, however, shuffle to move along a branch, and can scratch its head and neck with its feet.

Speaking of feeding, when is a good time to put out the feeders in the spring? In the northeastern United States, they should be ready by the end of March. Don’t wait until you see your first hummingbird, that may be well after the first ones arrive.

As unlikely as it seems, hummingbirds have predators. A variety of animals prey on hummingbirds given the opportunity. Due to their small size, they are vulnerable. However, only very swift predators can capture them, and a free-flying hummingbird is too nimble for most predators. Chief predators include sharp-shinned hawks, praying mantises, green frogs and bull frogs. Praying mantises especially have been seen to ambush adult hummingbirds at feeders on more than one occasion. Blue jays are common visitors at nests, as well as bats, squirrels and chipmunks.

The oldest known ruby-throated hummingbird to be banded was a little over nine years old. Almost all hummingbirds over seven years old are females, with males rarely surviving past five years of age. The reason probably being that males may lose weight during the breeding season due to the high energy demand of defending a territory. Also, the high demands of the migration can take its toll.

Maybe we’ll see more males, and their brilliant throats, before the summer is over.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

“Game, set, match,” is an expression used to indicate a competitor has won the game in which sport?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: It wasn’t a Graphic Flutterer, it was a Halloween Pennant

Halloween Pennant, left, and Graphic Flutterer.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

From time to time, it happens. You see something unusual, don’t know what it is, so you go to your research material to find the answer. You use multiple sources, do your homework, then, when you think you have found the answer, it ends up being wrong.

Well, it happened again last weekend for me. While working in my garden at camp, I noticed this unusual looking dragonfly. It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill, old brown ugly dragonfly. It was extremely colorful and just seemed out of place.

My research pointed to it being a Graphic Flutterer, rhyothemis graphiptera, The photo looked remarkably similar to the photo I had taken, but there was one thing that didn’t add up. The Graphic Flutterer can only be found in Australia, the Moluccas, New Guinea and New Caledonia. That’s half way around the world from here.

So, like I have done many times before, I turned to my contact, a wildlife biologist at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, emailed the photo to him, and he responded in short order.

“This is a Halloween Pennant,” (no, not a little flag you would wave on October 31), “Celithemis eponina. This is a native dragonfly in Maine, an uncommon, but not rare, species that breeds in slow streams, ponds, and lakes with abundant aquatic vegetation.”

Well, it sure fits. If you have been to Webber Pond, in Vassalboro, in recent years you will see that the lake is abundant with aquatic vegetation.

The Halloween pennant can be found across the eastern United States, ranging from the east coast to the states just east of the Rocky Mountains. They can also be found on some Caribbean islands and in Ontario province, in Canada. Seen mostly during June and July during the summer, they are actually active year round.

The Halloween pennant gets its name from its orange-colored wings, which have dark brown bands. They are often found on tips of vegetation near the edges of waterways. Mine was just hanging around on a Tiki torch near my garden.

It is a medium-sized dragonfly but also considered large for its species. They can range from 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 inches in length.

The adults fly around above freshwater habitat and the surrounding vegetation, and feed on smaller insects they capture in flight. They are considered very strong flyers, and can fly during rain and strong winds.

And, listen to this, they have some positive impact: They help control the mosquito population and have no negative effect on humans. I can only hope I see more of them, considering the healthy mosquito population we have at camp.

They are also secure in numbers and currently have no conservation concerns, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In case you’re interested, dragonflies have been in existence since the Permian period (299 – 251 million years ago).

In the end, I was not too far off when I identified it as a Graphic Flutterer. According to the Animal Diversity Web, at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, the male Halloween Pennant closely resembles the Graphic Flutterer.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who holds the Boston Celtics’ all-time scoring record with 26,395 points?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: “Tis the season for ‘giant mosquitoes’

Crane fly

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Have you ever gone to bed on a warm summer night, and seen this thing flying around that resembles a large mosquito?

It happens to me all the time at camp.

Sitting up in bed, grabbing the book I’m reading, or possibly a magazine for some light and quick reading. And, there it is, buzzing around the light, and becoming extremely annoying. It looks like a giant mosquito.

One of my relatives recently posted a photo on Facebook of that exact same insect on her arm. In the posting, she notes, “it’s a good thing I’m not afraid of spiders.” Wait a minute, this insect has six legs. All arachnids have eight legs. That is not a spider.

Well, I quickly fired off an email to my biologist contact at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, along with the photo. It didn’t take long to receive a reply.

His response was, “this is a cranefly, a true fly in the order Diptera, and probably from the family Tipulidae. There are over 1,500 species of Craneflies in North America and possibly several hundred in Maine. The adults are harmless, some species not feeding at all, and some species feeding predominantly on nectar.”

In colloquial speech, the cranefly is sometimes called Daddy Longlegs, a term also used to describe opiliones, or harvestmen, both of which are arachnids. The larvae of the cranefly are known commonly as leatherjackets.

Craneflies are found worldwide, though individual species usually have limited ranges.

The adult crane fly, like mentioned earlier, resembles an oversized mosquito, and has stilt-like legs that are deciduous, easily coming off the body.

The adult female usually contains mature eggs as she emerges from her pupa, and often mates immediately if a male is available. Adult craneflies have a lifespan of 10 – 15 days. Cranefly larvae (leatherjackets) have been observed in many habitat types on dry land and in water. They are cylindrical in shape, but taper toward the front end, and the head capsule is often retracted into the thorax. Larvae may eat algae, microflora, and living or decomposing plant matter, including wood. Some are predatory.

The sole purpose of the adult crane fly is to mate and, for the females, to lay eggs for next spring’s crop of flies. Crane flies are harmless to handle, so the next time one makes its way indoors, simply cup it gently to release outdoors. Think of it as a romantic gesture.

Some lavae species consume some living aquatic insects and invertabrates, which could potentially include mosquito larvae. Many, however, because of their short lifespan, never eat at all.

Numerous other common names have been applied to the crane fly. Many of the names are more or less regional in the U.S., including mosquito hawk, mosquito eater, gallinipper, and gollywhopper.

There are other misconceptions about the crane fly.

There is an enduring urban legend that crane flies are the most venomous insects in the world, but have no ability to administer the venom; this is not true. The myth likely arose due to their being confused with the cellar spider as they are also informally called “daddy longlegs”, and although the arachnid does possess venom, it is not especially potent.

Despite widely held beliefs that adult crane flies prey on mosquito populations, the adult crane fly is anatomically incapable of killing or consuming other insects.

Crane flies are generally thought as agricultural pests. Since the late 1900s they have become invasive in the United States. The larvae have been observed on many crops, including vegetables, fruits, cereals, pasture, lawn grasses and ornamental plants.

Should you kill crane flies? Adult crane flies are harmless and do not feed on blood. However, crane fly larva, known as leatherjackets, can cause damage to your lawn. You can kill the flies immediately with an insecticide or you can take preventative measures by killing their larva.

First, you must use home remedies with essential oils to prevent adult crane flies. It will also prevent them from laying their eggs in your garden or lawn. There are many essential oils that you can use to make your treatment, the most common being lavender, and peppermint oil.

It is harmless to humans, can be a nuisance to agriculture, but I wish it would stop reading over my shoulder.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

How many Major League baseball teams are there in California?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: The return of the red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker, left, and Red-headed woodpecker, right.

by Roland D. Hallee

It has been a while since I’ve seen one, but last week, on a couple of occasions, I saw a red-bellied woodpecker at one of our bird feeders. One had made an appearance a couple of years ago, but I hadn’t seen one recently. Of course, if you know what a red-bellied woodpecker looks like, it is one of the most misnamed creatures on the planet.

The red-bellied woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus, is a medium-sized woodpecker. It breeds mainly in the eastern United States, ranging as far south as Florida and as far north as Canada. Though it has a vivid orange-red crown and nape it is not to be confused with the red-headed woodpecker, a separate species of woodpecker with an entirely red head and neck that sports a solid black back and white belly. The red-bellied earns its name from the pale reddish blush of its lower underside.

Adults are mainly light gray on the face and underparts; they have black and white barred patterns on their back, wings and tail. Adult males have a red cap going from the bill to the nape; females have a red patch on the nape and another above the bill. The reddish tinge on the belly that gives the bird its name is difficult to see in field identification.

Males tend to call and drum more frequently than females, but both sexes call. The drum sounds like 6 taps. Often, these woodpeckers “drum” to attract mates. They tap on hollow trees, and even on aluminum roofs, metal guttering and transformer boxes in urban environments, to communicate with potential partners.

These birds mainly search out arthropods on tree trunks. They may also catch insects in flight. They are omnivores, eating insects, fruits, nuts and seeds. Their breeding habitat is usually deciduous forests. They nest in the decayed cavities of dead trees, old stumps, or in live trees that have softer wood such as elms, maples, or willows; both sexes assist in digging nesting cavities. Areas around nest sites are marked with drilling holes to warn others away.

Though the species is not globally threatened, it depends on large trees for nesting. In areas that are extensively deforested, the birds will sometimes utilize gardens, but for the most part they simply will not be present in any numbers.

In early May, the red-bellied woodpeckers begin breeding activities by drumming patterns; such as, slow taps followed by short rapid drumming. The red-bellied woodpeckers use vocal signals to at­tract and communicate with potential mates. The red-bellied woodpeckers are known to be in monogamous relationships. They have been known to rapidly peck on aluminum gutters of houses to produce a loud noise in order to attract females.

Woodpeckers depend on dead and drying wood for nesting purposes. The male red-bellied woodpecker takes the initiative in locating a nest hole. He will then seek approval from his female mate by mutual tapping. The red-bellied woodpecker excavates holes in trees for nesting and roosting. By excavating cavities, they play an important role in the forest communities for other species as well. For example, species such as squirrels and bats use these cavities as shelter. The female red-bellied woodpecker accepts the nesting hole by completing the excavation and entering the nest hole.

Researchers have documented that red-bellied woodpeckers have the tendency to nest in clear areas with only few trees. Studies have indicated that close canopy areas do not impact the bird’s nesting behavior; however, further studies are needed and are in progress. Red-bellied woodpeckers are territorial during the nesting season and they breed once per year. A pair-breeding woodpecker begins nesting in April or May.

The woodpecker uses its bill for foraging as a chisel drilling into bark or probing cracks on trunk of trees. In this manner, the red-bellied woodpecker is able to pull out beetles and other insects from the tree with the help of its long tongue.

Here’s an important fact. The red-bellied woodpecker is a major predator of the invasive emerald ash borer in the U.S., which has been spotted in Maine, removing up to 85 percent of borer larvae in a single infested ash tree. The red-bellied woodpecker has also been observed, on occasions, foraging on the ground amongst groups of Northern Flicker woodpeckers.

Predators of adult red-bellied woodpeckers include birds of prey such as sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper’s hawks, black rat snake and house cats. Known predators of nestlings and eggs include red-headed woodpeckers, owls, pileated woodpeckers, eastern gray squirrels, fox squirrels, gray rat snakes and black rat snakes. When approached by a predator, red-bellied woodpeckers either hide from the predator, or harass it with alarm calls. They defend their nests and young aggressively, and may directly attack predators that come near the nest.

My red-bellied woodpecker just shows up at the feeders and helps himself.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

What NHL team last won three Stanley Cups in a row?

Answer can be found here.