hummingbird lands on branch (copy)

A male ruby-throated hummingbird lands on a branch near a feeder in Pittsfield.

Q: We thought we had seen the last of our many hummingbirds on Sept. 7, but two days later another (female) came to our feeder. So, I have a couple of questions — might this last one be migratory and just stopping by for a snack? Or might it be one who has chosen to stay behind because it did not feel strong enough to migrate? Or maybe just late to start migrating? I am also wondering what the lifespan is for hummingbirds, and I would be interested to hear about their process of migrating — do they fly a certain distance and then stop to feed and rest?

— Paul S., Stockbridge

A: As I answer your query, Paul, I can’t help at a glance out my “office” window to a grass spider’s large triangle web, getting more extensive every night. This morning it is now broad enough to somewhat obscure a ruby-throated hummingbird at one of our sugar water feeders on this sad 9/11 morning!

As for hummingbird migration, they have just begun on their way south. I will say Sept. 15 is the date for the hummers here, to start south. They have enjoyed the offerings The Berkshires have to offer for 5 1/2 months. In David St. James’ “Annotated List of the Birds of Berkshire County, Massachusetts,” we read late day records include two Lenox records of Oct. 8 and 10, with a very late authentication between Nov. 13 and 20, 2006. (This resource was published by The Hoffmann Bird Club in 2017, and is no longer available. I feel safe in saying I am not alone wishing it would or could be reprinted or updated and reprinted.)

Times have changed for bird migrations, because of warmer temperatures. In one of my early bird books, “Birds of New England” by Edward A. Samuels published in 1870, we read “August, or perhaps by the 8th or 10th of September, the hummingbird takes his departure for the south.” In the 1999 third edition of “Birds of Berkshire County” by Bartlett Hendricks, the ruby-throat gives the season as May 15 to late September with a late record of October 6. For the recent arrivals, hummers now begin to be seen around the end of April.

I will keep our two active feeders filled through the first week of October.

Q: Early this past summer our maple tree (an important shade tree in our yard), had black spots on its leaves as it has increasing numbers for several years. Now they are duller and brown and sick looking, with many leaves now falling. What can we do and why does this happen?

— Donna B, Lanesborough

A: It is caused by Rhytisma acerinum, the black tar spot disease, or simply Tar Spot. It is a fungus, and is mostly a cosmetic problem, and is difficult to control.

Its spores are carried on the wind, making it is impossible to completely control if other infected trees are nearby. And even worse, unless all of the infected leaves from the area are removed (raked up) and burned or otherwise removed away, they will infect again next year. And I don’t mean just dumped along the edge of your property. Do not bother to add to a compost pile, unless you are sure the leaves will reach 140 F, they will re-infect the tree the following year.

Usually you will first notice the tar spots in midsummer as small light green spots, likely that resemble pimples or dots that turn yellow as they grow, and ultimately change to black tar-like growths.

Q: I was driving along Route 43, near Jiminy Peak, last week when a dove-like bird flew to the side of the road near me. It looked sort of like a mourning dove except both wings were pure white — the entire wing, not just the edge (the rest of the bird was grey); It was a very striking. Do you have any idea what I saw?

— Jim, Richmond

A: There are many varieties of “pet” pigeons, some kept for racing, others homing, while others just for their beauty, and yes, there are varieties that have different color patterns and subtle colors. I believe one of these is what you saw. It could have been a homing or racing pigeon that lost its way. Or, it could have been a partial albino mourning dove with missing pigmented wings.

Q: For the past two years we have had two black squirrels, and one was more tame that the other. This year they are gone, and now only gray ones visit us. Can squirrels change from black to gray? Or do you think something happened to them or what?

— Alice, North Adams

A: Gray squirrels are gray and black are black, but as a species, both are gray squirrels, and they stay the color their genes have dictated. I suspect that the blacks moved on (migrated); squirrels do that when their numbers exceed what the habitat allows. We suspect that that is one of the ways that the melanistic squirrels reached North Adams.

Q: When walking the other afternoon in Springside Park Woods I came upon what looked like a big raccoon dropping. It wasn’t on the ground but on a tree branch. Do raccoons or other animals that climb trees poop on branches?

— Pittsfield Walker

A: I sincerely don’t think it is fecal, and I probably know what you encountered. If it was black, or darker brown I will say, even without seeing, that it is a black knot disease that occurs on numerous cultivated prunes, and cherries, and in this case on a wild cherry. They are grotesque galls.

You can go to the following website for images and information: and scroll down to figures 3 and 4.

Reader Response:

Nancy S., of Pittsfield, wrote: “I so enjoyed your column today about the grass spiders! Fascinating! The description of their webs as clouds and fairy webs is perfect! Thanks so much for all the research you did for my question. [9-11-2021]”

Naturewatch Response:

I believe that this is the nicest response to one of my answers, and among the few that I have received since the 1970s.


Thom Smith, NatureWatch columnist.