Nice days in March give us an excellent opportunity to go exploring and examine what are called our “winter weeds.” You may have never thought to notice them or to take a closer look.
Winter weeds all have a story to tell. They may provide good food for foraging birds and mammals. Weeds, after all, are just flowering plants growing where they’re not wanted.
In the winter is a good time to look at weeds. The seeds get blown around by the wind, people walking through them and by hanging on to the fur of passing mammals. Some are very beautiful poking up through the snow.
There are excellent books with pictures that show the many weeds you pass by at this time of year, or you can check weeds out on your computer. It can become an interesting treasure hunt. Donald Stokes published a book a few years ago about nature in winter that can be very helpful and fun to use.
We are too far south for polar bears here on our island, but we do have some interesting seals here all year. Some even give birth nearby on outer islands.
Humans like to see and watch seals, and I think seals are people watchers. I always look carefully at the sea near the causeway and other water off Seawall.
The small harbor seal has a puppy dog face. The gray seal, or horsehead seal, has a horsey head and is larger.
Our seals have a torpedo-like shape, they can breathe air and can submerge for several minutes, perhaps four or five. Seals empty their lungs before diving. Seals have acute hearing in both air and in the water. They are fascinating to watch and always interesting to see.
The larger gray seal is sometimes seen from shore. Its head is more horse-like. Look also for its distinctive Roman nose. I find “A Field Guide to the Whales, Porpoises and Seals of the Gulf of Maine and Eastern Canada” to be a very good book for learning about these interesting mammals. It’s written by Steve Katonah, Valerie Rough and David Richardson.
This is the month to be watching for fulmars if you are out on the saltwater. Fulmars are gull-like birds. Stocky is a word I like to use in describing it. Hardy and stocky and gull-like.
This bird spends most of its life over the ocean far from land. It has a most interesting tube-nosed bill. The nostrils are encased in a tube just above a hooked bill. Special glands work so the bird can drink seawater. This bird is at home over the Arctic seas but sometimes is seen over Maine waters.
What a welcome sound is the first call of the red-winged blackbird after a Maine winter! Any mild or spring-tinged day in March with a red-winged blackbird singing is a special one and officially announces that winter is over.
Male red-wing blackbirds arrive first and check out the territory. They gather by the dozens in treetops and sing their song. When the females arrive a few weeks later, the birds pair off and start choosing a nest site. It often is a different site from the one chosen by the male. The female is very fussy.
These birds may get a frosty arrival as they figure out nest sites, but they eat at feeders, sing their melodious song and finally get down to nesting. Look for the male’s crimson epaulettes.
When courtship begins in earnest, the males vie for the female’s attention. Males spread their wings and tail and bow to get the female’s attention. When they have made a choice, the pair go off to build the nest. Red-wing blackbirds respect each other’s choices. Males may have several partners. Mid-May is nesting time on the island.