This month continues to be a mixture of summer and winter moods. Frosty mornings contrast with summery afternoons. Regardless of the weather, natural activities continue according to nature’s schedule. Buffleheads return from the Arctic and put beauty and action in our harbors. They have finished their breeding in the far north and will spend the winter with us. A few of these ducks arrive in October, but November is when they abound. They then will remain a familiar sight on lakes and along the shore until the fresh water freezes, and they then move exclusively to the salt water all around us and readily are seen in our many harbors.
Buffleheads are among the smallest of our ducks. Males have a puffy black head marked with a conspicuous white triangular patch extending from eye to eye around the back of the head. The belly and sides show a great deal of white. Females are small dark ducks with a white cheek spot. You often see buffleheads in pairs or small groups, so they are easily recognized. This handsome little duck floats like a toy on the water, but it can rise neatly from the surface. It is especially fun to see them burst from the water’s surface after they have been diving and burst into the air. When landing, they do so with a splash and then slide along on the surface. Buffleheads breed chiefly in western Canada and winter from the Great Lakes and New England south to the Gulf of Mexico. We are fortunate to be able to watch them through the winter and to see them start their courtship activities here when spring returns.
Golden crowned kinglets are busy now eating caterpillar eggs. In the summer, these tiny birds feed on small flying insects, many of which they catch on the wing. In the winter, when flying insects are scarce or gone, they feed mostly on scale insects and the eggs of plant lice and other small tree pests. Insects they particularly like include small caterpillars, locusts, leaf hoppers, weevils and plant lice.
Kinglets are the smallest of our New England birds except for the ruby-throated hummingbird. From beak to tail, they measure only three and one-half inches long. The male golden crowned kinglet has a conspicuous crown; the female has a yellow crown. Both are beautiful, and they are usually quite tame. They live here all year, and with their colorful crowns, they add a nice bright spot in our winter woods.
Here on Mount Desert Island, we can see both the golden-crowned kinglet and the ruby-crowned kinglet year round. The long, thick and fluffy plumage on both kinglets is a good reason why they can withstand the cold weather that we experience here and not be bothered. They are busy during the day stuffing themselves with insect food found in many hiding places. Not all kinglets will stay here in the north for the winter: some ruby-crowned kinglets may migrate south as far as Guatemala. Look for kinglets on your winter walks and in your own trees.
The changing plumage of goldfinches now causes some confusion for feeder watchers. Goldfinches do not leave us in the winter, but the males change their plumage to that of the female so they are all “dressed” in drab olive green and don’t look like themselves for awhile until spring when they turn yellow and black again.
Watch now for small flocks of snow buntings in open areas, driveways and along the shore. In the air, they look like swirling snowflakes. They show a great deal of white. Snow buntings are our bluebird-sized visitor from the Arctic, Newfoundland and other such northern places. They feed and sleep on the ground. Rarely will they sit even briefly on a rooftop. They often will be seen looking for insects and seeds in dirt driveways, exposed places along the road, ball field, at the beach, etc. You find them quite often poking in the rows of seaweed at the shore. The seaweed is a good place for them to find tiny crustaceans. If anything disturbs them, they fly quickly into the air in unison, circle around and then fly back to the ground to resume feeding.
Fall brings houseflies into the house and sometimes, sunny windows are filled with them. If you find any flies that seem to be nothing but empty skeletons, it is because the flies have been attacked by fungus. There will be a small amount of a white powdery substance under the fly to show the fungus has been at work.
A few of the big porch spiders are still actively catching any flying insects especially attracted to a porch light. I particularly like these spiders and enjoy watching them live their lives. They are perfectly harmless. While they are concentrating on catching flying insects, they themselves may get caught by a hungry bird in the daytime. I witnessed one very large spider get swallowed by a cedar waxwing one day. It was high drama, and did not end well for the spider.
Watch for evening grosbeaks at your feeder this month. Redpolls may appear as well. Purple finches will add a nice raspberry color to your feeder birds. It’s time now also to watch for the “winter chippy” or tree sparrow. Look for the round dark spot in the middle of the breast. This is a nice bird to see and to have around.
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