January is usually when the ice is thick and safe ice fishing begins. This winter has not been good for ice making so far, but soon, no doubt, it will bring very cold temperatures. Salmon, trout and pickerel then become sought after treasures brought up through the ice. Ice fishing is a cold sport, but for a large number of people on Mount Desert Island, it is irresistible. Beneath the ice, the salmon, trout and pickerel are moving, and ice fishermen eagerly watch for the flags to tip up.
Eagles will sometimes circle in the air or sit in a nearby tree waiting for a fish left on the ice or an occasional pickerel tossed their way. Such close encounters with these magnificent birds are special. A fisherman’s feet may be wet and his whole body cold in the frigid winds, but the hardy souls who enjoy this sport will be out there again and again drilling holes in the ice and setting their tip-ups in order to catch the elusive fish.
The salmon the fishermen are after are land-locked salmon, an important game fish in Maine. Salmon hatch in fresh water, usually in streams, and many spend some time there but eventually move down to the sea where they live and grow for several years, depending on the species. They will return to their home streams to spawn in the autumn. If a salmon is the land-locked species, as is the Atlantic salmon, it is generally smaller; if it is a stocked fish, a lower fin will be missing. The stocked fish are usually 10-20 inches long and from two to two-1/2 pounds, some even to three pounds. Pickerel are bony fish but quite delicious.
A friend told me of finding his fresh-caught salmon filled with smelt one day. On another winter’s day, he got a fish with its stomach filled with small water bugs called backswimmers.
Backswimmers are pretty interesting bugs, for they swim upside down so their undersides are on the top. In this position, they use their hind legs like oars. These strange creatures have a habit of coming to the surface and hanging head down with their tail ends sticking out. A film of air is carried on the hair on their undersides when they dive, like a scuba diver with a tank. Do not be tempted to pick one up, for they can bite!
When looking over the results of the latest winter bird count, I noticed that birding along the shore can be good these days. Common eiders, of course, were very numerous and are easy ducks to see from the shore. Although adults males in their black and white plumage are easy to recognize and adult females in their all-brown plumage are easy as well, they are the immature male birds that seem especially strange and perhaps confusing. Immatures are apt to be a mixture of brown and white. No matter the plumage, however, it is the shape of the bird and its sloping bill that help you to know it is an eider duck. This is a good time to study them with your binoculars. Eiders are known for their long, sloping, Roman “nose.”
Common loons in their winter plumage are abundant. Loons, of course, at this season are quite different from when seen in their summer plumage. They do not have the beautiful speckled back of summer nor the black head. Know them by their size and shape. Loons sit like an avian submarine on the water, and their thick bill is noticeable. They are quite capable of resting low or high in the water as they choose and can disappear into the water before you even know what they are doing. They seem to just sink beneath the surface in sort of a “going, going, gone” maneuver.
The other bird you should look for now on the ocean is the red-necked grebe. In this season, it is largely a ducky color with a long, yellowish bill. It is to be looked for on the sea, for they feed by diving underwater. In other seasons, they can be seen on fresh water. A peculiar habit of this bird is that it actually eats its molted feathers and sometimes feeds them to its young. Grebes have a curious habit of diving underwater to escape danger, and they actually can do it with young riding on their backs. The young seem to know just how to hang on for the ride. Three types of grebes are seen in our waters. They are the pied-bill grebe, red-necked grebe and the horned grebe. Winter and fall are the best times to look for the red-necked and horned grebes. Pied-billed grebes are to be expected from April until sometime before the end of the year. Although they resemble ducks and act a bit like ducks, they are not ducks. Generally, they are poor fliers but expert divers.
This is a good time to watch for the northern shrike at your feeder. By attracting song birds to come to your feeder, you are creating an unnatural concentration of small birds that the shrike likes to eat. It is not unusual at all to expect one to stop for an easy meal. Shrikes do not travel in flocks, so it is not something to be concerned about. The local birds know it as a natural enemy and behave accordingly. Seeing one, however, is quite interesting. The northern shrike is robin-sized with a heavily hooked beak, black mask and large white wing patches. It usually perches out in the open on a telephone wire or tree.
This bird’s nickname is the “butcher bird,” for it has a habit of skewering its catch on a thorn for later eating in the manner used by old time butchers in butcher shops. I’m old enough to remember this well, even the sawdust all over the floor. A shrike’s feet are not very strong, so the bird impales the bird it has caught on a thorn and then tears off meat to eat with its beak. It does take a few birds in the winter, but a shrike’s main diet is mice and large insects. Shrikes are only winter visitors to MDI.
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.