Hare-raising winter coming

Once again, we start a new year on this special island in Maine. The weather at this season may deal us sharp blows of freezing temperatures and blankets of snow covering the landscape, but life goes on for humans and wildlife.

Snowshoe hares blend right into a snowy landscape with their white fur, and this makes it easier for them to be overlooked by predators. Rodents traveling under the snow get around more easily and can stay out of the sight of ever-present enemies. With more snow falling, the hunted may breathe a little easier, and the hunters have to work harder to find food. Dormant plants will do better with a protective insulating layer of a snow covering the landscape thus giving them protection from drying and chilling winds. The interaction between animals, plants and snow is complex.

Now is the time to enjoy watching any tree sparrows in your neighborhood or on your wanderings. Nothing dampens the spirit of the tree sparrow, sporting a reddish cap and a single, round, black breast spot. In January, this perky sparrow forages through weed fields, clinging to a grass stalk in order to snatch seeds or searching for those that have fallen on the crusty snow. These attractive sparrows also come readily to your feeder. In January and February, these special-looking members of the sparrow family are abundant here on Mount Desert Island. At the end of March, their numbers diminish as they leave the area for their favorite nesting grounds in the subarctic.

In that very northern area, they build a cup-like nest lined with grasses and bark strips on the ground or in a low shrub. It is in the winter that we here on MDI get to enjoy seeing them. Even at feeding areas, they are usually seen feeding on the ground for seeds scattered under a tray or window feeder. They all should be gone by the end of June.

The snow may appear undisturbed as you walk in fields and woods, but beneath the surface there are tiny ‘roadways’ and ‘travel lanes’ made by the tiny voles living on this island. Mice and voles are the smallest of the rodent family. Voles differ from mice in that voles have small ears and eyes, blunt profiles and short, hairy tails. Even though voles are active both day and night, they move in tunnels, and in this way, are not commonly seen. From their under-snow world, they will sometimes dig ventilation holes to the surface. My glimpses of them mostly have been when they ran across the driveway and then quickly disappeared.

Voles and mice are an important food item for wildlife and provide sustenance for many bird and mammals. Fortunately they are very prolific and a female can produce 12 litters per year with from one to nine in each litter.

For a grade school project, my grandson and his father put a bait trap in my pond to find out what was moving about in the cold waters there. They had several creatures in the trap and had an interesting time identifying them and then releasing them.

One especially interesting creature was the common newt. This amphibian is almost like having two salamanders in one, for in its two stages of life, it is very different in appearance. Part of its life is spent completely in the water, and the other part is spent completely out of the water. In the water, it has large, heavy legs and a broad tail. It also has soft smooth skin and is generally brownish/olive green; its belly is yellow spotted with black, and a row of reddish spots bordered with black runs down each side of the center of the back. At this stage of its life, it is always in the water.

The red eft stage is when the newt transforms into a small red to orange salamander that wanders through the wet woods. You are apt to meet it in this stage on any of your walks in the woods in warmer weather. It is perfectly harmless and is very interesting to see. When in the red eft stage, it does not go in the water at all. If and when it does return to the water, for the rest of its life cycle, it retains the air-breathing lungs it had as a red eft. The red-spotted newt or common newt is regularly found on this island, and it is the most common salamander in New England. Many are active in our local ponds and lakes all winter. Look for them swimming about beneath any patch of clear ice. This is a very strange creature leading a double life.

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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