Male and female long-tailed ducks. According to All About Birds, they are able to dive down as deep as 200 feet to forage. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Nature: As winter approaches, all creatures adapt



Long-tailed ducks are fun to watch now in local harbors. Keep watch for them any day you are out walking along the shore. A friend told me they were very active recently near Bar Harbor as they called to each other, flew around and dove for food. Just watching a small group like this can be quite special. Long-tailed ducks were known as oldsquaws for many years. The Latin name for this bird is Clangula hyemalis, which means ‘noisy winter duck.’ I like that, for it best describes them.

These ducks are only seen in our local waters in the winter. Their breeding grounds are on the tundra of the subarctic. Their nest is on the ground in small cup-like shallows lined with down plucked from the mother’s breast.

These ducks fly high in the air on migration but otherwise they stay close to the water. They can be fun to watch and listen to on our local waters all winter.

Evening grosbeaks are being reported all over MDI and the outer islands. They are colorful and bold birds coming into your feeding area with vigor and confidence. Their yellow, white and black feathers make a nice contrast to the more somber, browns, grays, evergreen trees and blacks of the season. Bold, brash and beautiful describe the evening grosbeak.

I saw my first evening grosbeaks at an aunt’s house in Portsmouth, N.H., about 82 years ago and I still vividly remember these birds on my aunt’s feeder. Many years later, flocks of these grosbeaks arrived at my mother’s feeder in Connecticut and it caused a stir in the bird-watching community. Even the local birds were intimidated at first by their presence!

Even though the deciduous (leaf-bearing) trees look stark and dead now, they are not dead at all and actually have already begun growing next year’s leaves and flowers. These are miniaturized and hidden inside scale-covered buds. In late summer, the trees keep these incipient leaves and flowers from growing. At the same time, the trees mature this year’s seeds and fruits. Preparation for the life process the following year is already going on while this year’s cycle is being completed. Late-winter thaws, for the most part, will not trick the tree into opening leaves and flowers prematurely, for the trees respond to timed breakdown of chemicals in their cells and the steadily increasing length of daylight hours. Herbaceous plants as well as woody trees are ready all winter for the coming of spring.

As winter comes, we keep adding more layers of clothing or we put on special garments in order to keep warm. Birds that stay all winter do much the same thing. Their plumage is duller and less conspicuous, is denser and more closely interlocked. Ducks have a downy undergrowth preventing water and cold weather from getting in.

Underwear for furry wildlife takes the form of very short hairs that sprout along the roots of the longer true fur.

All insects are cold blooded, which means that their temperature is like that of their surroundings, so cold does slow them down. I was surprised after a snowfall to see a fly walking on the snow. Very cold wintry weather makes insects adapt in their own special way in order to survive.

Just as birds migrate north and south, insects go up and down. They go from above the ground to beneath a fallen rock, down in a rocky crevice or burrow down in a leaf pile. Water insects go into deep water or into muddy bottoms of a pond. Still other insects survive the winter as eggs in a sac or case made by the parents. Some insects escape the cod by crawling between the woolly leaves of the mullein plant.

Don’t forget that birding now can be done from the comfort of your car along the shore or from local docks. Hardier souls can still hike in the woods, fields and up the mountains or along the shore. Take advantage of all the opportunities nearby.

Send any questions or observations to [email protected].

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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