Crossbills’ beaks are a perfect tool

January is the beginning of a new year once again on Mount Desert Island. The weather is harsh and we expect to see snow at any time blanketing the ground making the island a winter wonderland.

Snowshoe hares have an easy time blending in when snow covers our landscape. Rodents traveling under the snow have protection from predators hunting from above them. The hunted may breathe a little easier but always have to be on guard. All have to find food to survive from the cold and snow.

The interaction between animals and plants and snow is complex. Animals need more food when the weather is harsh and it is harder to find food.

When the weather gets cold the surface of a partridge’s feet are doubled by comb-like projections which grow on either side of the bird’s toes, making built-in snow shoes. Watch for the telltale signs of the tracks these birds make with their special winter feet in the spruce woods.

Otters seem to have fun with ice and snow on slippery inclines, enjoying a bit of winter fun “otter style.” Pine siskins are interesting little birds to see every month of the year. Siskins are small, dark, heavily streaked finches with a little bit of yellow on the wings and tail, and they have a very pointed bill. They are a little bit larger than the common house sparrow.

Siskins are very active little birds in the winter and they find their way about in the company of goldfinches at a feeder where millet seeds and cracked butternuts are favorite foods. Listen for their call, which has been described as sounding like steam escaping from a radiator.

A friend told this week of a nice sighting she had of crows chasing a snowy owl along the beach. Snowy owls are daytime fliers. Since their home territory is above the tree line far to the north they are more comfortable sitting on rocks or a piece of sand or driftwood rather than a tree or rooftop.

My first sighting of a snowy owl was right on the beach. Sitting there it looked at first like an old newspaper flapping in the wind. Once in awhile one will sit in a tree or on a post. They are very beautiful birds to see and as they fly they make me think of a giant feathered moth silently passing by.

Crossbills are interesting birds and very beautiful. Here on MDI we can see both the red and the white-winged crossbill. They are well noted for the seemingly defective bill they have. Although the bill looks defective it is made just right for the birds and is quite amazing. The manufacturer did know what the bird needed. The bill is perfect tool for eating tiny seeds. It is shaped like a pair of scissors with the tips crossed. The bill opens the cone and the bird’s tiny tongue gets the tiny seeds out perfectly.

Crossbills are nomadic, so seeing them can’t be predicted. Their breeding takes place when the cone supply is abundant, even in the middle of the winter. Consider it a good day when you see them somewhere. Stop and watch them on the sides of the road when they look for salt.

A plump hermit thrush was seen just before Christmas. Natural food is abundant this year but as winter moves on and deals us harsh blows and deep snows this bird may rethink its situation. This lovely singer in the bird world is usually gone by the end of December.

Even at my advanced age and with a gradual hearing problem, I am so glad that I can still hear his beautiful song at twilight in my woods. This thrush is larger than a sparrow, brown backed, with a spotted breast and slender bill. Its tail is reddish and seen well as the bird flies away from you. It also has a habit of raising its tail and then slowly lowering it. Its song is flutelike, clear and very special in arrangement and presentation. Most hermit thrushes are now wintering in South America.

Send any questions, photos 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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