Swirling snow and slippery roads kept many indoors this past week, but Maine wildlife activities went on according to nature’s schedule built into each creature. Snowshoe hares moved about hardly seen in the white landscape. The snow-covered landscape suits them well. Deeper snow allows smaller rodents to move about unseen. Foxes, though, can detect rodents under the snow left by the recent storm and pounce on them with great accuracy. Deer and moose still can move about easily.
If you can get out for a walk on Ocean Drive some February day, look for a possible king eider to be in view. This showy duck is a beauty. Its back and belly are black, and you might not pay it any attention until you see the unusual pearl-grey head coloring, the green-tinged cheeks and an orange bill topped off with a bizarre-looking orange knob! It looks like a duck Dr. Seuss might have designed. Seeing this bird through your binoculars is very special. These ducks are only in local waters in the winter.
King eiders feed in deep water and remain submerged longer than any other duck with the exception of the long-tailed duck. These impressive eiders have been caught in nets at a depth of 250 feet. They partially open their wings as they dive and use them and their feet to swim underwater. The king eider is a bird of the northern seas, breeding on Arctic islands and coasts and seldom traveling much farther south than Massachusetts. It’s a good day when you see this special duck visiting the waters around Mount Desert Island.
Cross-country skiing on this island is good now and a wonderful way to get out and about and see some nice wildlife. I am looking forward to being out and about on my skis once again, when the time is right, after a recent surgery. This island has such excellent carriage roads to explore. On a warm February day, it is especially fun to find an area where snow fleas are enjoying life. These fleas look like pepper sprinkled all over the snow, especially in your ski tracks. Look closely though, and you will see that the tiny black specks are jumping all about. These tiny creatures are part of the springtail family, and they have the unusual characteristic of being active all winter, especially on warmer days or in a sunny snowy patch. As soon as the sun goes down and it gets colder, their activity stops.
At other times of the year, springtails live under damp leaves, the bark of logs and other moist, dark spots throughout most of the world, including polar regions. Some springtails are luminous. Some are extraordinary jumpers. Fish eat them when they collect on the surface of the water. I have seen birds searching through the seaweed and assorted flotsam and jetsam at the high tide line, and they are probably getting springtails and other creatures. One spring, returning birds got caught in an unexpected cold spell, and tropical birds like warblers, orioles and tanagers were surviving on what they could glean from the lines of seaweed along the shore. Although normally not conspicuous, springtails are quite common, but they are only noticeable in the snow. These strictly vegetarian creatures feed on algae, pollen and leaf mold.
Butterflies are not really part of winter, but sometimes in a February mild spell you will see a mourning cloak butterfly flying lazily about in the sunshine. A warm day will bring them out, but as the temperatures drop again, they disappear once again to their warmer quarters. These individuals we may see in February emerge from their chrysalides in July. After flying about in the autumn sunshine, they find winter hiding places and remain there, except for a brief winter flight or two, until May, when they come out to lay their eggs. For 10 months they live as adults, which is a very long time for butterflies.
Flying squirrels are fascinating creatures and quite different from the grey and red squirrels everyone knows so well. While the gray and red squirrels visiting your feeder are out in the daytime, the flying squirrel is a nighttime creature but also may come to your feeder when you are not paying attention. These attractive squirrels with their big eyes, soft, cinnamon gray fur and broad, flattened tail live all over the island but are not often seen.
Of course, a flying squirrel does not really fly. It travels using its “gliding membrane,” a loose fold of skin which extends from the outside of the wrist on the front leg to the ankle of the rear leg. Using this membrane and the broad, flat tail, the mammal glides from a high point to a low point. I have watched them with great interest as they scrambled up a tree trunk and then launched into the air and then glided to the ground or a lower tree. Outside your home they usually glide from a high point in a nearby tree right to your feeder. They prefer to eat seeds but readily come to a feeder for peanut butter. They also eat bark, leaves, tree buds, lichens, fungi, maple sap and insects. Flying squirrels are eaten by owls, foxes, weasels, goshawks and domestic cats.
I have a wonderful memory of hiking the woods above Big Long Pond one day and coming upon a young flying squirrel practicing its gliding. The tiny flying squirrel would run up a small sapling and glide to the ground over and over. Its landings were not always elegant, but the little squirrel was determined to learn how. Another day, I found just the broad, soft tail of a flying squirrel on the ground in the woods. Probably the squirrel survived the attack, but its gliding was hampered for this particular beast the rest of its life. It reminded me of that popular story “Tale of Squirrel Nutkin” by Beatrix Potter.
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