Winter finally found us, and snow has fallen generously over our island in recent days. Wildlife and humans have had to cope in their special ways to keep warm and safe, and to have food to sustain life. One of the positive effects of snow cover is that for the hunted, such as hares and rodents, life is easier, for hares are equipped with large feet to get around in the snow. They also now have a white coat of fur and are harder to find in a white landscape. Rodents can travel in tunnels beneath the snow without as much danger of attack from above.
Dormant plants will do a lot better with a protective insulating layer of snow covering them and giving them protection from drying winds. The depth of the snow affects wildlife in various ways. Getting through deep snow is harder for deer and moose, for it makes them expend more energy at a time when food is scarce.
Some wildlife seems to thrive in the snow. Otters, for instance, slide on slippery surfaces down a hill. They seem to enjoy a bit of winter fun. Ledgelawn Avenue in Bar Harbor seems to be good location now to see feeding flocks of waxwings. I’ve had a few calls from residents there about waxwings feeding on berry-bearing shrubs. These visiting flocks of Bohemian waxwings are often tame and very easily approached. The Bohemian waxwing is a slightly larger bird than the Cedar waxwing.
Regardless of the weather, nothing dampens the spirit of the tree sparrow. This little bird, sporting a reddish cap and a single round breast spot, spends this time of year foraging through weed fields, stopping at feeding stations, clinging to a grass stalk in order to snatch seeds or searching for any seeds that have fallen in the snow.
A strange bird eating at an island feeder prompted a column reader to get in touch with me. She described the single bird quite well, so we could identify it as a hermit thrush. The hermit thrush is not expected here at this time of year, but there it was. Normally these thrushes migrate by mid-November and are not seen again until mid-March and April. This thrush is often heard in the warmer months and also seen feeding on the ground. It is little larger than a sparrow and has a rusty red tail that it often cocks up and then drops slowly. This trait is very helpful in identifying the bird. Its back is brown, and it has a spotted breast and a slender bill. It is definitely not a bird you would expect to see here in February.
Chickadees seem to enjoy a good snowstorm, and kinglets don’t seem to be concerned with the rugged weather. It is not unusual for an ermine to come into an old house when the weather is bad and they are searching for mice. A friend of mine had an ermine surprise her one night as she was doing her dishes at the sink. The ermine ran across the back of the sink in front of her. She wasn’t afraid of it, but she was understandably startled. The ermine was unconcerned about her. It was after a mouse and soon left with its mission accomplished. They are excellent hunters. At this time of year, ermine are white except for the black fur at the tip of the tail, which is there throughout the year.
Ermine are small, slender and long-bodied, and they have a curious nature. Although they disappear quickly, you can usually get them to come back for another look if you make squeaking noises with your lips. I tried this one day when I was enjoying the sun at Ship Harbor while sitting on the rocks. I noticed something move out of the corner of my eye, and I thought it might be a small mammal. I made the squeaky noise, like a kissing sound, and watched. Sure enough, a couple of rocks away, the ermine appeared and looked at me. We both had good looks at each other!
In the wintertime, an ermine may travel up to 2 or 3 miles in a night searching for food. They usually kill more than they eat, which makes them unpopular around a henhouse. Their normal food consists of rats, mice, hares, voles, shrews, birds and earthworms. They are handsome little mammals and fun to see.
A friend reported seeing an interesting sight this week. He watched several crows giving a barred owl a hard time as it was trying to rest. This often happens, for smaller birds recognize the owl as a predator even though at the moment it may just want to sleep until nighttime when it hunts. Sometimes little groups of several kinds of birds of varying sizes will gather together and annoy the owl unit it leaves for a more peaceful resting spot. Some groups I have seen have contained robins, blue jays, kingbirds, chickadees, crows and ravens. Even though the owl could easily grab one of the tormentors, it usually flies off and finds a new resting place.
I remember watching a small group of birds feeding on an exposed ledge in Southwest Harbor. The group included crows, ravens and an eagle. They were feasting on some dead creature, and although the eagle was definitely in charge, the other birds grabbed what they could from a respectful and safe distance. If any of them “overstepped” the invisible boundary, it would have ended up being part of the eagle’s meal. When a dead seal comes on the beach anywhere, this sort of behavior also happens.
If you are out and about and find pitcher plant leaves visible in local boggy areas, take a look inside the leaves to see what might be wintering there.