Thom Smith: Excitement at an early season bird feeder

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I hung a sunflower seed feeder a few days ago. As I was hanging out the window securing it to a movable arm-style hanger to the second-story window frame, a chickadee briefly landed on the feeder filled to the brim with sunflower hearts until he saw me. Before I could get inside to close the window, it flew away, but only briefly. That afternoon, within minutes, a small flock of chickadees joined this bird as did at least one pair of white-breasted nuthatches. Then, several house finches. An hour later, I saw a red-bellied woodpecker come to the feeder. Yesterday, downy woodpeckers, a couple at least, also came to the feeder. Today, three days after I set the feeder out, a small flock of slate-colored juncos arrived to join the feast. Usually, it takes a while for different species to gather the courage to try a new feeder. So, I must assume that these birds were regulars last season and recognized the feeder, even though the feeder is now in a new location, between the feeder's past perch and the shrubs that they waited in for their turn. I would never suggest hanging out a feeder this early because of bears, except, as I mentioned this one hangs from a second-story window.


Q: A dove was at the feeder, a chipmunk came and the dove drove it away. All the other birds are afraid of the chipmunk and won't come anywhere near it. It is so interesting to watch wildlife.

— Nancy, Lenox

A: While we think of the dove as a symbol of peace, they can apparently be feisty when need be. I have not found anything in the literature indicating they are aggressive, however. It may have been an especially hungry individual.

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Q: I saw a butterfly in Hinsdale at the beginning of October, and did a lot of Google searching and learned it was a Milbert's tortoiseshell butterfly. How unusual are they, and should I report it somewhere?

— Darlene, Becket

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A: You can go to the Massachusetts Audubon Society site, While the species is rare in The Berkshires, it is seen, although not by me, as I am more interested in birds than butterflies. Readers of this column have learned that there is one exception, the monarch butterfly that I have become very interested in because I can play a role in its conservation through writing and in my own backyard.

What I do know is many New England butterflies can, and do, overwinter as a chrysalis by entering what scientists term diapause. It is a self-induced halting of development before drastic weather changes, such as winter. For caterpillars, or more so, if a chrysalis is found, it will generally have no problem surviving a normal winter. One found in late fall may be kept in places like an unheated garage or a three-season porch in a dark, safe from mice, container with ventilation that keep them alive until the warmth of spring finally arrives. Caterpillars that overwinter find similar places in the wild; one such famous caterpillar is the wooly bear, which come spring will become a moth.

And while most butterflies spend the winter months hidden as an egg, larva or pupa (chrysalis), some do spend the winter as adults, and one is the Milbert's tortoiseshell. Others include the Compton's tortoiseshell, question mark, eastern and gray commas, and the very common mourning cloak, often the first butterfly seen in the spring. When I was on Mount Greylock early this fall, there were numerous mourning cloak butterflies flying around that had just emerged.

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I don't ever recall seeing this kind of butterfly, but my only real butterfly hunting days were at Springside Park in Pittsfield and the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox, mostly in the late 1950s, and I was more attracted to moths then, because of close friends who were collecting moths by attracting them with spot lights and baiting them with a mixture, if I remember correctly, made from sugar, overly ripe fruit (a banana, for instance) and stale beer. They let the concoction ferment for about a week and then before dark on the night of the hunt, painted patches on an assortment of trees. Learning from mistakes, we became smart hunters and would tag the trees and map them so that in the dark they could be found. I hope a reader will remind me to continue this thought next June or July.

Q: While raking leaves at the end of October, I noticed large maple leaves with black patches. I probably never paid attention to them before, but wonder now what the cause is. The leaves come from a neighbor's tree.

— Michael, Pittsfield

A: I can't say for sure when this problem was first widespread in The Berkshires, but it is now commonplace, so much so that it has a common name, "tar spot." It causes numerous black spots on leaves of maples, but more common on Norway, silver and red maples. I often think of it as the Norway maple disease, because much of the time the tree I see it on is that species, which incidentally is not a native species and is considered somewhat of an invasive. To get technical, it is caused by more than one fungus in the genus Rhytisma and when it became common hereabouts, I would receive numerous questions. That seems to have quieted down.

While the disease is on the leaves in early summer, it is often light green and often with a yellow tinge. It is only in late summer that the fungus darkens. It is difficult to control and often many homeowners ignore it once they realize it does little damage to the trees it infects, and, unfortunately, will live through the winter. For homeowners wanting to control it, raking and destroying the infected leaves will reduce the number of spores the following spring, but unfortunately, will not eradicate all of them.


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