Fall colors on this island get better every day. It is nature’s grand show before another Maine winter. Birding enthusiasts watch local harbors for the buffleheads and other northern ducks that come here to spend the winter months. Buffleheads are due “any day now,” as the lyrics of a popular song I play with a guitarist friend come to mind.
Watch this week for buffleheads to appear in our harbors. These small sea ducks winter here in small flocks. They are attractive ducks and fun to watch out on wintry harbors. They even do part of their courtship here, which can be interesting. The bufflehead is a small duck with a big head, white body and a black back. This bird’s head is quite striking to see, for it is black with a large white patch on it. It’s small size and distinctive markings identify the male right away. Females are rather drab and best recognized by their size and the company they keep. You often see a male and two females together. These small ducks can rise from the water with great speed and often surprise you when they burst from beneath the water and right into the air.
Old squaws and buffleheads quite often arrive at about the same time. Check any birds you see these days in our harbors. Take pictures if you want help in identification.
As winter gets closer, many changes are taking place outdoors now. The trees have brilliant colors, and some flowers still bloom profusely. Dragonflies are still out and about. Chipmunks and squirrels are busy stocking their larders for the days ahead. Some in their hurry to get across roads get flattened by cars, but ravens and crows constantly feast on the carnage, and the cycle of life goes on. Nothing is wasted in nature’s plan unless we humans get in the way. As insect populations die down at the approach of winter, birds search instead for seeds and berries. Birds like kingfishers and phoebes thrive on insects and soon will head south for the cold months. Some birds leave for the south now and others arrive from the north to winter here. Although a few robins try to spend the winter, many leave for warmer states to the south. Many Canadian robins come down to us from our northern neighbors and winter here, so we do see a few robins in the snow. The northern robins tend to be a little darker. Starlings and house sparrows are ever-present. An occasional hermit thrush may be around in December. In general, however, both human and wildlife migrants are on their way south.
Painted lady butterflies are still feeding on the flowers in front of A&B. Be sure to take advantage of this opportunity to see these beautiful butterflies up close.
In a good berry-bearing year, wildlife fares well. One of my favorite fruit-eating birds is the cedar waxwing. It is the bird version of Beau Brummell and definitely a winner of the best-dressed medal among the birds. Added to his good looks are his perfect manners.
Waxwings like to travel in groups, and you may see them feeding together in a mountain ash and even passing food from one to another as they sit together on a branch. They love certain kinds of berries and will often eat so many slightly spoiled fruit that they get a bit tipsy.
Theoretically, they are migratory birds, but their movements are more in the form of random wanderings. After the nesting season is over, they wander about the countryside in groups of 30-50 birds. Sweet sap oozing from the trees in the spring is welcomed as a special treat. Look for them in honeysuckle, mountain ash, barberry and hawthorn just to mention a few favorite places. The cedar waxwing is a sleek brown bird with a crest on its head and a broad, yellow band at the tip of its tail. It is our only sleek gray-brown bird with a crest. Cardinals and blue jays have crests, but they are much larger.
I have been asked all sorts of questions about wildlife during each week these many years of writing a nature column. People also tell me what they are seeing, especially if no one is nearby and they just have to tell somebody what they’ve just seen. I’m happy to share their excitement. Not too long ago, there was a report of a cougar sighting on the island. This is not common, but it could be, as the young adults spread out and look for their own territories or an adult looks for a suitable mate. All sightings here are considered rare and far between but not impossible. Their presence would help in keeping the deer population at a healthy level. Cougars or mountain lions can live near humans and not be a problem. They are amazing cats. It’s an exciting and unforgettable moment whenever you get to see one in the wild. I have experienced it.
If you hike along the shore now, be sure to notice glasswort growing where the tides come in and out. It is a lovely red right now. Blueberry leaves are also a lovely red color. Take note where they are so you can pick berries next year.