Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Birds, bugs and other varmints.

Joni Mitchell.

"They paved paradise and put up a parking lot"....
"Tore down the trees and put them in a tree museum"


"Late last night, I heard the screen door slam
Then a big yellow taxi took away my old man"

Do you recognise those words? If not, you are too young to be here. They are by a Canadian singer called Joni Mitchell. In the same song she sings about pesticides "Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees". 'So prophetic for the Woodstock, baby-boomer, "Silent Spring" generation and for me, but it is the "screen door slam" that echoes with me now.

The Maine woods are full of bugs and flies, especially black-flies, mosquitoes and tiny "no-see-ums". To prevent them from entering the house or trailer you live in, you have double doors. The outer one is made of mesh and it is hinged on a spring so it slams as you go in and out, often catching your heels or ankle or scattering the groceries at the same time. That slam is the sound of a domestic American summer. The screen door also keeps out unwanted "critters" like raccoons and chipmunks.

I sometimes find the slam irritating and so I tie the screen door open. This infuriates Americans, but for me, the big attraction of renting a cottage in the Maine Woods is that it is like camping. You only have to open the door, prop the screen open and you are in the place you want to be, camera at the ready.

In fact, old Maine summer houses are called "camps" and they are designed for days spent outdoors and evenings around the fire. It can be hot on summer evenings so you may have the windows open but all of them will have bug-screens. This is a good idea unless you want to take photographs from inside.

This year, after a bit of experiment I found that I could take photos of the hummingbirds on the porch by putting the camera outside and firing it with a remote switch, through the mesh.  I focused all my other efforts into attracting wildlife to an apple tree that could be viewed from an upstairs bathroom where I did the unthinkable; I removed the bug-screen from the window and left it open.

That apple tree already attracted  birds. The trunk was pitted by even, horizontal rows of holes made by sapsuckers. Porcupines and raccoons ate the apples and insect-eating birds found that the fruit attracted flies. A pair of Acadian flycatchers made sorties from that tree every morning. When I added bird feeders and copious amounts of peanuts to the natural food I attracted a wild turkey and a lot of squirrels.

I soon realised that some of the wildlife was too shy to come into the open near the house. There would be deer in the forest (indeed, we saw one on the first night) but they never came to our salt lick. I knew there would be flying squirrels too but they are very shy and nocturnal and i didn't see one on this visit. However I was caught by surprise when my feeding stations attracted an American red squirrel. These are rare in the mid-coast area of mixed woodland but get more common as you progress north into pine-woods.

Over the course of our two-week stay some of the local animals became used to our comings and goings. The turkey was there every morning and eventually brought three friends along; porcupines would pause as we shone a light on them and then wobble off to climb a tree, but "Fatso" the raccoon was the best. He stayed around after breakfast so I could photograph him.

We saw chipmunks every day but they were much more shy than others I have met, probably because our house wasn't continually occupied.  If I had stayed a few weeks, I am sure they would have come to food and attracted their big cousins, the woodchucks too.

Skunks are easy to find in your headlights but more often you get that burnt rubber smell of a dead one as you drive along the highway.

The mammal that everyone wants to see on holiday is the Maine moose, but you would really have to devote some time to seeing one. Our son Nick has very keen eyesight and he spotted one at dusk along the highway.

Gray fox: Not my photo, sadly.
Dog-like, red foxes are quite easy to see along railway tracks and in the suburbs (coyotes are rare on the coast) but one night, as we left Percy's Seafood place we saw an animal that had us fooled. It was more cat like; perhaps a kind of raccoon? It moved like a cat, and it was fluffy with short ears and long, bushy tail. A black stripe extended down its back and to the tip of it's tail. A second one popped up, identical to the first. What were they?

I failed to get a photo but I soon found an image in a book that matched them perfectly.

Gray Foxes are quite rare in New England but more common on the Pacific coast. Apparently they are out-competed by red foxes so I felt lucky to see these. On a return visit to Percy's I asked our waitress about them and she said that she often saw both kinds of fox as she left to go home at night.