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ELLSWORTH AMERICAN

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September 12, 2019

IN THE RIGHT PLACE: THE FIRST JOURNEY

By Richard Leighton

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We’re experiencing something akin to having a youngster leave home on the journey to adulthood in a difficult world. But, our experience is with the pictured young Osprey whom we watched grow up this spring and summer. (By the way, you’ll see that we think of this youngster as a “who” and a “her.” We feel that we know her too well to call her an “it” and, at this point, her sex is neither apparent nor important.)

What is important is that we haven’t seen her for more than two weeks. She’s seemingly gone south on that long, dangerous migration that we knew was her destiny. We worry about her, of course. Yet, at the same time, we know that she was brought up properly. She was her parents’ only fledgling and got plenty of attention. She should do well.

The research on juvenile Ospreys indicates that they do not migrate south with their parents. They take the long trip on their own, guided by a need that is not fully known. Why the youngsters choose to winter in a certain southern state, Mexico, Central America, or South America also apparently is not fully understood.

According to tracking data, most juvenile Ospreys will stay in whatever wintering area that they do select until they mature at about 18 months, but sometimes they’ll stay a year or two more before migrating back north. They usually migrate north back to the area where they were born and they usually migrate south to the wintering area that they originally chose.

So, although we didn’t get a chance to wish “our” youngster a bon voyage, it seems that we have a fair chance of seeing her again as a beautiful grownup one of these springs. (Brooklin, Maine)

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August 8, 2019

IN THE RIGHT PLACE: IN-FLIGHT FUELING

By Richard Leighton

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What has the appearance of a hawk, the movements of a hummingbird, the fuzziness of a bumblebee, the wings of a dragonfly, the tail of a lobster, and the length of a credit card?

That would be the Clearwing Hummingbird Moth (Hemaris thysbe), which is part of the Hawkmoth family (Sphingidae). They’re very active around here now.

Clearwings are often heard rather than seen, due to their size and the blurry hum of their rapid wingbeats. They reportedly can achieve horizontal speeds of up to 12 miles an hour. However, it’s their ability to hover like a hummingbird that makes Hummingbird Moths special.

As you see in the accompanying photograph, they can hover in front of long-necked flowers such as those on Cow Vetch, insert their lengthy proboscises within the petals, and draw out nectar as part of an in-flight fueling maneuver. (We suspect that this ability makes them poor pollinators.)

The peek-a-boo parts of this species’ wings occur when these moths discard some of their wing scales early in life, perhaps as a camouflage feature to confuse predators. However, other species of Hummingbird Moths do not have see-through wings. (Brooklin, Maine)

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July 11, 2019

IN THE RIGHT PLACE: JACKS AND JENNIES RECONSIDERED

By Richard Leighton

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This neighbor comes from a very honorable family, but doesn’t get the respect that he deserves. He’s a Donkey, you see. That means that he’s really an Ass, a descendant of the African Wild Ass.

We’ve been calling his kind Donkeys since Shakespeare and others began to associate his real name with stupidity and a slang description of part of the human anatomy that is not known for its intellectual prowess. No one knows for sure where the name Donkey came from, but some believe that it originated as a transliteration of this animal’s favorite greeting: “Dong-KEEE.”

Keep in mind that our amiable friend here is a legitimate member of the Horse family. Do not confuse him with a Mule. A Mule is the bioengineered product of a male Donkey (a “Jack”) and a female horse (a “Mare”). A Mule is bigger, stronger, and usually more docile than a Donkey, but Mother Nature took her revenge on Mules: they’re as sterile as statues. If you want Mules and not Donkeys, get yourself a Donkey first and keep him away from the females of his species (“Jennies”).

It’s Donkeys, not Mules, that play critical roles in the great writings of Judaism, Christianity, and other religions. They’re often symbols of suffering, service, and humility. In the New Testament, Jesus does not ride triumphantly into Jerusalem in a limousine or on a Mule. It was a reliable Donkey that humbly performed that service.

To be sure, Donkeys get mixed reviews in literature. In the older tales, they tend to be disparaged as slow and stubborn. In more modern literature, they often play very important supporting roles: Eeyore in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Benjamin in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and Dapple in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, come to mind.

Which, surprisingly, brings us to Andrew Jackson. He was derided as a “Jackass” during his 1828 presidential campaign and liked the insult, saying he was tough and strong-willed. Then, cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted all Democrats as Donkeys and all Republicans as Elephants, which became the parties’ symbols. As we enter the 2020 presidential race, let’s see which Party takes Eeyor’s advice: “A little Consideration, a little Thought for Others, makes all the difference.”

(Brooklin, Maine) [Headline supplied by the Ellsworth American was different: “Don’t Be a Smartass and Confuse Donkeys, Mules”.]

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June 20, 2019

IN THE RIGHT PLACE: SURVIVAL OF THE UGLIEST

By Richard Leighton

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Double-Crested Cormorants continue to rebound after nearly being devasted by DDT and other contaminants. Increasing numbers of these summer visitors are now regularly flying V-shaped sorties up and down the Union River and lounging in colonies in our coastal coves and harbors.

This population increase does not make everyone happy. Cormorants, also known as Shags, are viewed by some as the porcupines of the sea: a species that causes more problems than provides benefits. These birds foul boats and docks and destroy vegetation with their droppings. They also “steal” fish; look creepy, and – according to a few old-timers – are bad omens.

On the other hand, some of us think that Cormorants should continue to have a place in this world, if managed intelligently. They’re fascinating in a grotesque way. Their hooked beaks, orange-yellow masks, crackled aquamarine eyes; and (in breeding season) feather-crest “ears” usually are not noticed by casual observers, who see just an ungainly black bird.

To be sure, Cormorants are ungainly above water. But, under the water surface, they belong in the Fishing Hall of Fame. They dive deeply and can stay under dark water for long periods; they also swim fast and peer long distances for fish and eels with those specialized eyes. Their muscular legs pump their two big webbed feet simultaneously and their short wings act as submarine rudders.

On land, Cormorants frequently just stand around in the sun with wings spread. They’re not surrendering. Their outer feathers are adapted to absorb water and repel air bubbles, which reduces buoyancy and creates speed underwater. Thus, Cormorant feathers get wetter than those of other water birds and need to be air-blown dry.

It’s not easy being a Cormorant, but they have found a way to survive. (Brooklin, Maine)

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May 9, 2019

IN THE RIGHT PLACE: ­­MASKED MARVELS

By Richard Leighton

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It’s good to see Osprey pairs soaring high again above the Union River and coastal waters. Sometimes, they’re so high that we know that they’re above us only by hearing them loudly call out to each other. Their high-pitched greetings often sound like an interrupted whistle on a boiling tea kettle: CHEEyup, CHEEyup, CHEEyup!” 

 When we see the Ospreys quickly circle down to 30 or 40 feet above the water, we know that we’re probably in for a show. They’re our only raptors that can hover like a helicopter, which they do to zero-in on a submerged target. If they decide that all systems are go, they tip down into a wing-powered dive and crash into the water feet first with a big splash. Sometimes, they disappear for several seconds before emerging, usually with a very surprised fish in their talons.

 Of course, these hawks come equipped with specialized fishing gear. Their golden eyes can see through water better than most creatures; their nostrils can close under water, and their feet are weaponized wonders. They have a disjointed outside stabbing toe that the birds can reverse from pointing forward to pointing almost backward; this allows them to use two claws in front and two in back to carry fish securely. Their soles are barbed to grip their slippery prey and maneuver it in flight so that the fish’s head is pointed forward for better aerodynamics.

 Ospreys also are our only hawk that preys virtually exclusively on fish. In fact, they’re commonly called Fish Hawks or Sea Hawks. However, don’t confuse them with the namesake of the Seattle Seahawks in the National Football League. There’s no such thing as a “Seahawk” and that team’s live mascot actually is an African Augur Buzzard that doesn’t like the sea and eats mostly mammals and reptiles.

 Unlike Augur Buzzards, Ospreys migrate, often travelling hundreds of thousands of miles during their long lives. One wild Osprey reportedly lived to be 30 years old and another reportedly flew 2,700 miles in 13 days, from Massachusetts to its South American winter home.

 We welcome back our masked marvels to their spring and summer homes. (Brooklin, Maine)

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April 11, 2019

IN THE RIGHT PLACE: HOMELAND SECURITY

By Richard Leighton

Image, which did not appear in the newspaper, taken last week. © Richard Leighton

Image, which did not appear in the newspaper, taken last week. © Richard Leighton

April is when there are mysterious happenings that are “vernal,” meaning “of the spring.” One of these happenings involves strange activity in the “vernal pools” hidden in our wooded lowlands. These pools, most of which go dry by summer, are places where certain amphibians and crustaceans must breed and grow to fulfill their important roles as foods for other wildlife and sources of wonder and discovery for us.

Maine vernal pools are an indispensable part of the life stages for at least three native amphibians: the Wood Frog, the Spotted Salamander (shown here), and the Blue-Spotted Salamander. The pools also are just about the only place where native fresh water crustaceans called Fairy Shrimp swim, which they do by backstroking upside down.

Image, which appeared in the newspaper, taken in a prior year. © Richard Leighton

Image, which appeared in the newspaper, taken in a prior year. © Richard Leighton

Some of the amphibious vernal pool creatures, including the Spotted Salamander, are “pool-specific” creatures. That is, when the temperature gives them the signal that it’s time to mate and lay eggs, thousands of them embark on a nocturnal march to return to the pool in which they were born.

On such “Big Nights,” these tiny travelers often must scurry relatively long distances and cross roads to get to their family pool. Nature lovers with flashlights often try to give them a hand. But, of course, more profound protection is needed for their homeland destinations.

In Maine, vernal pools that are determined to be of high value to wildlife are regulated as “Significant Vernal Pools” under the State’s Natural Resources Protection Act. Non-trivial disturbances of such pools are prohibited and activities that have the potential to impact the pools may not be undertaken without a permit. (Brooklin, Maine)

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March 14, 2019

IN THE RIGHT PLACE: THE SEASON OF HOPE

By Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

The problem with March here is that you can’t trust her. Her primary jobs are to bring us Spring and Daylight Savings Time, but she usually falls in love with Old Man Winter and carries on with him in the most distracting ways.

We had a big snowstorm last week, but not as bad as the white-out blizzard that you see in the accompanying image. That occurred on March 14, 2018 – exactly one year ago today. We’ll likely get more snow before April dances in, and maybe some after she gets here.

Technically, March is supposed to bring us two Springs. March 1 is “Meteorological Spring,” which is based on the annual temperature cycle and our division of the year into the four-seasons of Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.

Most of us in this hemisphere, however, will accept March 20 as the first day of scientific Spring this year. That’s when “Astronomical Spring” arrives in the form of the March Equinox. During that Equinox, daylight and nighttime will last almost the same time. (“Equinox” comes from the Latin words “equal” and “night.”)

Frankly, Meteorological and Astronomical Spring are not that meaningful in the lives of those of us who like to think of Spring as a heart-lilting time of lushness. We prefer what might be called “Psychological Spring,” a Feels-Like-Spring season, which usually occurs here during a few days in June. (Brooklin, Maine)

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February 14, 2019

IN THE RIGHT PLACE: THE YELLOW TRAIL

By Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

The late Mary Oliver was one of many poets and essayists who confessed to having a compulsive need to walk alone in the woods. She explained her search for such solitude this way: “I have my way of praying, as you no doubt have yours.” 

Of course, such reverence is not reserved for poets and essayists.  Nor is it really an attempt to find solitude in the literal sense, nor necessarily a search for peacefulness. It seems that some of us need to escape humanity at times and be absorbed into a place full of different life – furry, feathery, leafy, and other – where we can see, feel, and think differently. Some of us also seek – just sometimes – a place where we can experience a mixture of wonder and mild fear that makes our life briefly seem fuller.

The local Yellow Trail is one place to go alone in winter to experience that anxious wonderment. It’s rough and icy and dark and even dangerous in spots for those who are not careful. But it’s where you can disappear into a quiet, non-human dimension.

It’s a place to have a staring contest with a barred owl and to realize suddenly that a patch of shadow contains a trinity of does, standing still, ears up, watching you with unblinking dark liquid eyes. It’s where you can travel back in time by tracking the journeys of small neighbors that also have chosen to come this snowy way. Mary’s prayers could have been answered here. (Brooklin, Maine)

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January 10, 2019

IN THE RIGHT PLACE: APRONS, CLUBSTICKS, AND RING BAGS

By Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

It’s mid-winter, when most of our coastal water lobster boats have brought in their traps and are taking vacations “on the hard.” But not all of them. Some lobster boats undergo a maritime metamorphosis: they develop wings in the form of masts and booms and become scallop boats that fish in the cold.

Most of these winter fishing vessels trawl with scallop dredges, which are ingenious metal and twine mesh contraptions. They scrape the bottom for scallops, but have escape routes for fish and openings for removal of the mollusks by the fishermen (including women).

The dredging equipment has exotic terminology, including an apron, skirt, clubstick, shoes, rock chains, sweep chain, ring bag, and chaffing gear. Some vessels also are platforms for air tank divers who hand-harvest the most prized (and expensive) of the delicious mollusks, “Divers Scallops.”

Scallop fishing has been highly regulated in Maine waters since the mollusks got to nearly-endangered levels in the mid-2000s.  The season is scheduled for 50, 60, or 70 days, depending on zone. Those fishing days are spread over a few days each month from December into April, with some additional November dates available for diving.

The daily limit is 15 gallons (shucked on board) per licensed fisherman. However, the harvest is monitored and may be further restricted for conservation purposes at any time. (Brooklin, Maine)

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December 13, 2018

IN THE RIGHT PLACE: CHRISTMAS CAROL NEEDS TWEAKING

By Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

Lately, we’re hearing a lot of The Twelve Days of Christmas. That’s the carol in which the singer’s True Love gives the singer gifts on each of the 12 days. Unfortunately, most of those gifts aren’t right for a Maine Christmas.

A major problem is that True Love apparently doesn’t know much about birds, yet half of the gifts are birds. Take True Love’s favorite gift, “A Partridge in a Pear Tree.” No self-respecting, seed-eating ground bird is going to stay in a fruit tree unless it’s nailed there. “An Eagle in a Pine Tree” would be a better first gift for us.

Things get worse the next day when True Love sends “Two Turtle Doves” – those are nothing but European pigeons; they could be invasive. “Two Mourning Doves” would work better here. To add insult to foreign trade injury, True Love next sends “Three French Hens.” There’s nothing wrong with our hens and buying local is good; “Three Maine Hens” would be a significant improvement when it comes to poultry-giving. Then, things get obscure: True Love sends “Four Calling Birds,” whatever they are (parrots with cell phones?). We should clear this up with “Four Cawing Crows.”

Next, the only sensible gift is delivered: “Five Gold Rings” (which we wouldn’t mind getting). But then, after this one day of sanity, True Love’s odd romantic impulses revert to birds: “Six Geese A-Laying” are sent. Delivering geese while they’re a-laying is bound to result in a mess on the porch, if not injury to the UPS man. “Six Geese Migrating” would be a little better and have the benefit of gifting a vision of free-range birds. Next, we have an unlikely winter delivery of summer birds: “Seven Swans A-Swimming.” For Christmas paddling gifts here, we need birds that can survive out beyond the ice; “Seven Loons A-Swimming” should do the trick.

These feathered offerings are just the warmup for True Love’s big, loud finish with performance gifts. There are deliveries of “Eight Maids A-Milking,” “Nine Ladies Dancing,” “Ten Lords A-Leaping,” “Eleven Pipers Piping,” and “Twelve Drummers Drumming.” With two exceptions, these are (just barely) acceptable for a Maine holiday party. However, we draw the line at maids a-milking and lords a-leaping in the house. We’d allow “Eight Teens Moon-Pieing” and “Ten Men A-Beering,” though.  That should patch this old thing up wicked-good.

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November 8, 2018

IN THE RIGHT PLACE: TURKEYS WITHOUT BORDERS

By Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

November in rural Maine has become a month for avoiding Turkeys as much as for hunting and eating them. The wild ones roam freely in foraging flocks called “rafts.” It’s not unusual to see a raft of 20 or more Turkeys working a field.

They’re fun to see, but the ones that you don’t see – the ones in the brush alongside the road – can be problematic. Many Wild Turkeys are jaywalkers with a death wish. They dart across the road just when vehicles get within skidding distance. Turkey-related vehicle accidents reportedly are increasing here. Thank goodness these birds sleep at night.

We’re beginning to wonder whether Maine has been too successful in reintroducing the birds. The original colonizers of New England reported Wild Turkey rafts of more than 100 birds, which the colonists hunted relentlessly. By 1672, it was rare to see a Wild Turkey in Massachusetts.  But the birds remained numerous in the sparsely-settled north, now called Maine. As Maine became settled, the number of Wild Turkeys here diminished severely; by the 1880s, the birds were uncommon in much of the State.

After several unsuccessful attempts to reintroduce Wild Turkeys into Maine, a small imported flock took hold in the 1970s. That flock has now grown to an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 Turkeys and is continuing to grow, according to Maine wildlife officials. In a recent State survey, more than a third of Mainers responded that additional steps should be taken to reduce the State’s Wild Turkey population.

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October 11, 2018

IN THE RIGHT PLACE: STICKY BUSINESS

By Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

It’s dinner time, but first we look out the window with a bit of anxiety to see if he’s back. He is! We’ve run him off three evenings in a row, but there he is again. We grab the broom and open the door loudly. He looks up and hunkers down into his Buddha pose, waiting to see what we’ll do.  He’s wild, but not fearful; he’s armed, but not aggressive. He’s a dilemma. He apparently thinks he’s our “Spiny Pig,” which is English for “Porcupine.”

We run at him shouting and waving the broom. He slowly gets on all fours and raises his quilled tail straight into the air – a defensive posture that reminds us not to get close. He turns and walks off in slow, waddling dignity. Perhaps he senses our profound weakness when he sees a broom instead of a rifle.

Porcupines can do considerable damage to trees and we’re not aware of any benefit that they confer on the world, except perhaps as a delicacy for large weasels. The State of Maine, a tree-conscious place, seems to be without much sympathy for Porcupines. Under our regulations, Porcupines are considered numerous and may be taken by licensed hunters in any way, at any time, in any number, except on Sundays or someone else’s posted property.

Nonetheless, there is the view that Porcupines were here before property rights and are part of a complex natural system that we humans invaded and don’t fully understand. And, there is this: sometimes they’re cute. But, not often.

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September 13, 2018

IN THE RIGHT PLACE: SHADOWS AND GHOSTS

By Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

The fog is thick. There’s about 15 feet of visibility as we begin to pick our way along Great Cove’s rocky shore. Above the sound of the lapping tide we hear “Whump- Whump- Whump” – silence – “Whump- Whump- Whump.” We think we know what it is: big wings pushing and pulling heavy air, then gliding. Very near. We wait.

It emerges as a silent shadow almost directly over us: its legs and toes are perfectly aligned and its huge wings are extended straight out, a gliding swan dive that defies gravity; its war bonnet plumes are streaming from its prehistoric head; its long beak is a spearhead piercing the fog. Then, its wings move in large, rolling undulations -- “Whump- Whump- Whump.” It disappears in the mull. We’ve glimpsed a Great Blue Heron or the ghost of one.

Great Blues are the largest Herons in the United States and are common summer visitors in Maine. They breed and nest in dense colonies here, usually along the coast. However, there has been a noticeable decline in their nests and the State has listed the Great Blue as a “Species of Special Concern.”

In 2009, Maine wildlife officials initiated a continuing study to help find the causes of the Great Blue’s decline. There apparently have been no definitive results yet, but we have learned from the study that some of our Great Blues take their winter vacations in Florida, Cuba, Haiti, and the Bahamas.

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August 9, 2018

In the Right Place: Meet the neighbor

By Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

Summer is when we often meet new seasonal neighbors, which usually is fun. However, the first meeting with this summer’s most intriguing new neighbor did not go well – he was in the process of destroying our birdfeeder. He’s the biggest Black Bear that we’ve ever had visit us; we guess that he runs well over 400 pounds. Watching a creature that big trying to munch tiny seeds would have been laughable were it not for the fact that he and we were eyeing each other at 40 feet and he had put our birdfeeder seriously out of torque.

But, he was true to his Black Bear Code. We yelled at him as if we were in charge and he loped away unapologetically. We eventually came to a neighborly understanding with him: we wouldn’t replace the birdfeeder and he wouldn’t come close to the house. He saunters by in our field at dusk every now and then, we wave to him and he seems to nod a “How’s-it-goin’?”

Maine contains more Black Bears than any of the lower 48 states. Black Bears virtually never attack out of aggression or even for protection of cubs, according to State Wildlife officials, Apparently, the few reported dangerous confrontations in the State virtually always relate to very hungry bears, available food, and panic by the bear and/or human.

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July 12, 2018

In the Right Place: Thwack

By Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

© Richard Leighton

The Bald Eagle was chosen in 1782 as the emblem of the United States because of the animal’s majestic appearance, strength, and long life. However, this bird always has had its critics. Even Benjamin Franklin famously complained that it was ”a rank coward” of “bad moral character.”

Nonetheless, we suspect that most of the Bald Eagle’s critics have never carefully watched one soaring on its seven-foot wingspan high above a river, then banking severely, spiraling down fast in smaller and smaller circles, pulling up to skim the water, thrusting its talons straight out at the last moment, and plucking its prey with a splashy “thwack.”

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