I hope that fans of summer got their fill of “The Nineties” last week. Heat and humidity are not my favorite conditions and, from the reaction of my neighborhood critter population they agree with me!
Over the course of last week’s heat wave I saw dozens of birds standing around with the beaks wide open, gasping for air and hanging around the bird bath as if it were the local bar. Wild turkeys, crows, doves, goldfinches and chickadees were among the most frequent visitors to the watering hole, but I also saw woodpeckers (three varieties), robins and assorted warblers come in for a quick sip. I normally fill my bird bath every third day, but during this period I had to fill it twice each day.
The daytime birds were not the only ones that felt the oppressive heat. My nighttime trail camera images show deer, raccoons, a gray fox, an opossum and a skunk in the act of drinking out of the concrete pool, including one raccoon that actually climbed in and was literally taking a bath. The significance of all this is that my bird bath is about two steps away from the front porch, normally too close for comfort for most of these species, but the heat was such that they were willing to take the risk in exchange for a cool drink. The deer and the fox seemed especially tense but the lure of cold water was enough to make them let their guard done, however momentarily.
When hot weather prevails I like to go into the woods and search out the vernal pools, beaver flowages and other wet places where I might find a wallow being used by bears, moose, deer and other creatures. It doesn’t take a lot of mud to make a wallow, and just about any place that is wet enough to leave footprints behind should have all kinds of sign to observe, not to mention frogs, turtles and the occasional garter snake. It’s common knowledge among fans of nature that water attracts all kinds of wildlife, be it a lake, river, pond, small stream or even a bird bath. Water invariably attracts insects (a good source of food for most birds and some small mammals) and the wet ground produces plenty of succulent growth that appeals to herbivores and others that benefit from eating or hiding in the lush greenery.
When I want to know what’s going on outdoors during the heavy heat of summer I head for water, where I always find something interesting to observe. Poke around in the mud for a few minutes and you’re sure to find a variety of animal and bird tracks, certainly a few frogs or salamanders and more than enough insects to keep the local bird and bat populations happy.
Because Maine’s black bear hunting season is just a few weeks away I like to look for fresh tracks in the mud near stream crossings. Any lowland swamp will have a culvert crossing somewhere and if you follow the waterway far enough away from the road you’re likely to discover bear tracks as well. Bears, moose, deer and other animals have been using these crossings for hundreds of years, long before there were roads in the way, which explains those ominous “deer crossing” signs dotting our major highways. The animals’ travel ways were there first and despite our best efforts to block their progress with roads, fences and other obstacles the same crossings remain active to this day. Animals can’t drill, blast or dig their way cross-country so they must follow the contour of the land, which has not changed much since the end of the Ice Age.
Another trend I noticed during the recent heat wave was that most of the local birds and animals conducted their business at night or at dawn and dusk. None are particularly fond of intense heat and humidity save perhaps the squadron of dragonflies that hovers continually outside my back door. I’m usually up before dawn and even then the birds, squirrels and chipmunks are busy. A loon comes by every morning just before sunrise, and the doves come in for water shortly afterwards, but once the blazing sun comes up over the horizon everything that creeps, crawls or flies finds a cool haven and stays put till just before sunset. Not even the chipmunks seem interested in stealing and storing sunflower seeds through the middle of the day. I can identify with them because I spend those sultry days seeking shade and avoiding work, too. Nothing kills a good spate of ambition like 90-degree heat, and I’m more than happy to postpone backyard projects until conditions improve. I will make an effort to pick some fresh mint or hyssop for my iced tea but that’s the extent of my to-do list. I do what needs to be done but not much else.
Fortunately, this is Maine and it won’t be long before the heat, haze and humidity blow out to sea and we can enjoy some bright, brisk pre-autumn weather. Cool, crisp nights and comfortable days are right around the corner, sure to generate more enthusiasm from one and all.
Not to rush things but already I’m seeing subtle splashes of color in the swamp maples and sumacs. The tall grasses are browning up nicely and the garden is showing signs of fatigue as well. Lately the hummingbirds have shown a characteristic upturn in nectar consumption, which occurs every year about this time as they gas up for the long trip south. My flock of hummers usually sticks around till mid-September and then suddenly they are gone, not to be seen again till early next May. At that time it still seems summer-like to me but they are much better at predicting the weather than I. They are smart enough to head out just before the summer bloom begins to fade, following the last gasp of nectar-producing flowers all the way to South America. Like spring, fall also has its signs, and woe to those who ignore them!