Red-necked grebes

Arctic grebes winter in Maine

A thin skim of ice covers my small pond these November mornings. Winter is creeping in on us. I have noticed that many gray squirrels have been killed as they cross our busy roads this month. They are busily preparing for winter and moving about everywhere as they store away food for the coming winter. It’s hard to avoid hitting them sometimes as they start to cross and then change their minds and go back.

Those of you who have experienced bear activity near you soon will not have that to think about them when these large mammals go into their winter hibernation mode.

November is the month for making preparations for winter for both humans and wildlife. In cold weather, crickets huddle together under boards and loose stones. Other winter sleepers are earthworms, slugs, crustaceans, spiders, insects, toads, frogs, turtles, snakes and salamanders. Each creature in its own way knows how to survive a Maine winter. Field mice stay active all winter and provide food for other mammals such as foxes and coyotes as well as for wintering owls and hawks. Meadow voles are common in our fields and woods and have to avoid being eaten by the predators seeking them.

Strange as it may seem, witch hazel blooms this month. Witch hazel is a tall shrub, maybe 10-12 feet tall. The yellow flowers showing this month appear in pairs near the base of the leaves. The especially interesting thing about this shrub is the way the woody seed capsules of the previous year split and releases their seeds. The capsule does this maneuver with great force sending its seeds for many yards away. If you happen to get hit by one, you would feel it. An extract for medicine is made from the bark and twigs of the witch hazel. I can still remember that wonderful aroma of witch hazel liquid being rubbed on my insect bites when I was a child many years ago. When you are out and about these November days, see if you can find some witch hazel in island woods and fields.

Grebes often come to visit this island in the winter, and your best chance of seeing them is along Ocean Drive. Take your binoculars with you and scan the water near shore. Grebes are ducklike swimming waterbirds with pointed bills and narrow heads and necks. They also appear tailless. They also seem to have perfect posture, with necks held quite erect. Ducks tend to “sit up straight” when alarmed but not otherwise. The two grebes we can expect to see in the winter regularly are the horned grebe and the red-necked grebe. In older bird books, the red-necked grebe is called “Holboell’s grebe.” The Latin name for this grebe is Podiceps grisegena holboellii).”

The red-necked grebe is larger than other eastern grebes. We see it here in its winter plumage, which is mostly grayish, with perhaps the top of the head darker. In flight, it shows two white patches on each wing. In its breeding plumage, it has a long, red neck and a white cheek and chin.

Grebes are great divers. They dive for fish, aquatic insects, crustaceans, mollusks and marine worms. They can however also eat some plants and land insects. One fact about that that surprised me was that this bird eats its own molted feathers and also feeds them to its young.

The other grebe to look for in the winter around Mount Desert Island is the horned grebe. This grebe is a small, very ducklike bird with a small, pointed bill. It is generally patterned in black and white. They breed in the Arctic but winter into Maine, and that is when we get to see them at such places as the Ocean Drive and over at Schoodic.

These grebes are excellent swimmers, and they also have the ability to “sink” into the water as you look at them and then swim along, submerged with only the point of the bill showing. I was very surprised the first time I saw one do this. They are able to stay underwater for about three minutes and then reappear a good distance away. It is fun to watch them dive from their sitting position. You may see them singly or in small flocks.

A friend sent me a wonderful video taken with a wildlife camera set up in their backyard near the woods locally. When they reviewed the video, they had an excellent photo of a visiting bobcat. It was at first staring right into the camera showing it chunky body and then its short bobbed tail as it went back in the woods. I would like to have been there to see that animal up close. My only local sighting was on the road just out of Ellsworth headed back from Blue Hill one night. The bobcat was sitting in a ditch close to the road, and I was able to carefully slow down and see it very well before it ran off. This is a handsome mammal.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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