Island Naturalist by Kathie Fiveash

Penobscot Books, Stonington, Maine, 2014. 226 pages, paperback, $27.95.


Kathie Fiveash’s new book, Island Naturalist, collects together about 70 entries from her natural history column in the weekly Island Ad-Vantages newspaper out of Stonington.

Fiveash, following a graduate program in environmental studies in New Hampshire a few years ago, tells us in her introduction that she found herself living on “wild, unbridged, sparsely populated” Isle au Haut. Always fascinated by the natural world, the coastal flora and fauna captured her attention. She pitched a weekly column on her island explorations to the newspaper’s editor, and her journalistic journey began. 

The attraction in these short articles is the abundance of information, topic by littoral topic. Each one unwraps interesting details on everything from tree sap to spiderwebs, cormorants, caterpillars and crickets, to red tide, voles, seals and the mechanics of the solstice. And there are points to catch the eye of just about anyone with an inkling for nature, from casual kitchen window observer, to amateur naturalist, to even some specialists.

Curious facts abound: Some species of periwinkles can breathe air; shrews are poisonous; maple taps catch sap as it flows down the tree, not up. It’s surprising to learn that the winter-summer cycles of puffins — practically an icon of Maine’s Down East coast — have only recently been studied in any detail. Researchers were surprised to discover one bird, tagged with a tracking device at Seal Island, traveled north to the Labrador Sea and as far south as the mid-Atlantic. Details of puffin feeding habits and capabilities also are not well-known to scientists:

“Scientists believe that puffins at sea locate areas where prey is abundant by looking for concentrations of phytoplankton, the single-celled plants that are the basis of the ocean food web. Where there is phytoplankton, there is zooplankton, the tiny animals that feed on phytoplankton. Where there is zooplankton there are small fish feeding and that makes good hunting for puffins.”

Grouped within the headings of American nature writing’s ur convention — Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter — these reports from Isle au Haut offer compact rehearsals of the fascinating scientific facts behind the things Mainers see in their backyards and beaches every day, and have always wondered about.

The book is available online and by writing to Penobscot Books, P.O. Box 36, Stonington, ME 04681, or emailing

Dana Wilde is a writer, editor and former professor of writing and literature. His Backyard Naturalist and Off Radar columns appear in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel newspapers. He lives in Troy, in Waldo County.