Winter on Mount Desert Island is so unpredictable and so different from year to year. We all have our favorite comments on how it was and what we think it will be. Wild animals and plants have built-in adjustments for the seasons, and only when there are big changes or unexpected events, is life for them very difficult. Members of the natural community are always coping with harsh conditions and survival. Death for some creatures on a given day means survival for others seeking something to eat. Many predators of all sorts will go to feeders for a quick and sure meal. Last winter, a bobcat in Ellsworth was a daily visitor at a friend’s feeder, and he captured many wonderful photographs.
Last year, snowy owls were everywhere along the Eastern coast, even down into Florida, which is very unusual. The weather far to the north forced a “bumper crop” of young owls to move farther afield to find enough food to survive. During the nesting season, there was such an abundance of lemmings to eat that the parent birds raised many healthy young owls. I’ll never forget seeing a picture of a snowy owl nest lined with lemming bodies. The young birds had more than enough to eat. This owl can lay as many as 10 eggs. As they grew, the young birds had to migrate south to find food.
Each year, inclement weather sends many of these birds south, and it is then that we see them on MDI. This year, a few have and are being seen, especially on the higher elevations, but at this writing, they haven’t reached the numbers seen last year. The weather, too, this year, has not been as severe in the north.
Snowy owls are very large white owls with black flecking on the wings, and you usually find them sitting on the ground, or maybe on a large flat rock along the shore or on top of local mountains such as Sargent and Cadillac. Since they are not used to seeing humans, they may allow you to get closer than you would expect them to. When in flight, they move silently like a huge, white, feathered moth over the ground. A great photo is on the internet of one of these owls approaching a traffic camera suspended over the road. With it wide, outstretched wings and its yellow eyes looking at you, the bird is magnificent to see! This owl is here only in the winter. Large migrations are cyclic, so we still have to wait and see what happens this winter.
A smaller northern owl also might appear in your yard some winter’s day. My grandson saw one last year sitting outside his bedroom window. My son quickly came in to identify it, and the bird turned out to be a rare boreal owl. Word got out to the birding world in Maine, and people came from far and near with their wonderful cameras to see it and capture the bird in a photo. This small visitor is about the size of a screech owl and is earless. The facial disks are framed with black, the bill yellowish. This rare visitor breeds in the Arctic and only comes irregularly to the U.S. On this island, it is considered a rare visitor and only seen occasionally.
Friends out walking saw a nice hawk sitting in a tree next to the trail. They couldn’t identify it. From the photo I saw of the bird, it was in a woodland setting, not at the edge of a field or open area. It did not have a long tail. Using the process of elimination and knowing which hawks are here now, I think they saw a rough-legged hawk.
This bird breeds in the Arctic and only in the wintertime comes here where we get a glimpse of it now and then. Rough-legged hawks come here seeking more plentiful food. I saw many of them in Labrador a couple of years ago when my daughter and I were exploring that interesting area near Red Bay. These hawks were very beautiful to watch soaring about. Even now, I can close my eyes and see them in my mind’s eye as they soared overhead in such a wild landscape. They hunt particularly on dark days. They nest in trees, and this hawk is one that is quite comfortable sitting on a tree branch, as my friends saw recently here on MDI. Note any hawks you see now flying overhead or in the woods and then look online for the many photos of this particular bird.
The hawks we can expect to see in the winter on MDI are the sharp-shinned hawk, red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk and perhaps a goshawk. None are numerous at this time.
If you get near any of the nice vantage points for the open ocean, such as Schoodic, watch for the beautiful harlequin duck. This sea bird is very beautiful, and it is only expected to be seen here from November through late April and early May. Winter is the best time to look for them. The harlequin is a rather small and compact sea duck, but it is the male with his gorgeous designs and colors that is so special to see. The bird’s head, breast and back are a slate blue, and the bird’s back is boldly patterned in white. Look this one up in your bird book or online so you know what you are looking for. Its design is unique and to see them sitting on the wintry sea is very special. The female is known by the company she keeps, for she is an all brown dark duck, just supporting three white patches on her face. In the nesting season, harlequins will be found on mountain rivers and streams, but in the winter, they are seen along the rugged coast. Anyone out on the sea in the winter gets the best views of them, but there are some land-viewing locations, with Schoodic being a very good one for us here on MDI. It’s worth taking the drive to see them.
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.