Avian clowns bring show to feeder

A large flock of evening grosbeaks landed on a friend’s feeder this week with a flourish. All the other birds scattered when these large, colorful finches in black, white and yellow stopped by to eat the seeds offered. Evening grosbeaks are about the size of starlings, and they have a fierce look, although some people have described them as avian clowns. In 1959, these northern finches spread out even as far as Connecticut where I was living at the time with my parents. It was big birding news then, for they had not come that far south from their northern breeding grounds.

When the grosbeaks landed on the feeder, the local birds gave them plenty of room and seemed afraid, but after awhile the resident birds figured out how to cope with these scary intruders from the north. Some grosbeaks even went as far south as the middle states. Wherever they appeared, they were noticed and seemed like alien feathered invaders. Nowadays, they are down in numbers, and even though they live here on Mount Desert Island year round, not so many are seen.

Evening grosbeaks first appeared on MDI during the summer of 1961. Young have been observed getting fed here on the island, but I don’t know if a nest has ever been found.

Snowy owls are with us again this year and have been seen and photographed numerous times by hardy hikers on local mountains. These are daytime hunting owls. Last year, large numbers of snowy owls were seen far from their Arctic homes, for in their breeding areas, lemmings were very abundant. With so much to eat, the young owls thrived in large numbers. Once they left the nest, the young had to spread out to keep finding food. I even have an unusual photo of an owl’s nest lined with furry lemmings. Some snowy owls even found their way as far south as Florida!

Look for snowy owls on open land, beaches, golf courses and the airfield in Trenton. These large white Arctic owls could appear most anywhere. They are handsome birds to see. The first one I ever saw was sitting on a beach and at first looked to me like a newspaper blowing in the wind. The feathers are very white and often on some birds are flecked with black.

We do have a few lemmings on this island. They are not abundant, but they have been found here. A southern bog lemming was collected in 1959 in Salisbury Cove and another one in 1984 at Fernald Point in Southwest Harbor. In the far north, there is a northern bog lemming.

An interesting email came to me this week telling me about an occurrence with a hawk and chickadees. A hawk flew into the window feeder one day and swooped off with a bird in its talons. Feathers flew, and they were gone in a flash.

A while later, my friend saw the accipiter hawk return. She suspects it was probably a Cooper’s hawk. The hawk sat on a hawthorn branch not far from her window. While it perched there, a chickadee flew to a branch 3-4 feet above it, then proceeded to hop downward towards the hawk a branch at a time as if taunting it. The chickadee got to a branch within about 30 inches from the hawk. It then flew over to the apple tree and came right back with two more chickadees who did the same thing! They all landed high in the hawthorn at first and then gradually hopped down and down dangerously near the hawk. Just at that point in the drama, a car pulled into the driveway, and all flew away.

It may seem like a strange story, but small birds, like chickadees and even hummingbirds will gang up on a predator and taunt it to chase it away. I have seen groups of blue jays, nuthatches, chickadees and other birds teasing hawks.

I think the most amazing was a hummingbird trying to pull feathers from an eagle! Often at a pond, I have watched kingbirds go after crows and ravens just passing by if the kingbird had a nest threatened. Sometimes, a smaller bird will get caught but not usually. Resting owls trying to get a little sleep in the daytime often get teased so much by little birds that they finally give up and move off for a little peace and quiet.

If we experience deep snow, take time to watch for crossbills eating salt at the edges of our roads. These curious birds with the crossed bills often are seen up close as they do this. Their bills are actually crossed like a pair of deformed scissors, but this strange bill is actually a perfect tool for them in extracting seeds from pine cones. With difficulty, they also can eat other seeds. Getting a chance to watch them feed is quite special.

We have two crossbills living here, the white-winged crossbill and the red-winged crossbill. Crossbills often breed in the winter even with the ground covered with snow. Since 1945, the red crossbill has become a familiar bird here. Both birds are good ones to look for now. They are very pretty winter birds.

If we get a big snowfall, feeders will be busy. Please let me know what you see in the wildlife world!

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


Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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