Common redpoll perched on a branch. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Nature: Bird beaks fit the bill



Feathered visitors keep feeders busy, especially this time of year. Redpolls arrive and stay through April. These colorful little wanderers drift into the Northeast every winter. They usually show up with the first snowflakes and leave when spring approaches. You may see them in small groups or in flocks of hundreds! They are about the size if a chipping sparrow. They are streaked grayish brown and have white wing bars and a pink rump (the males have a red cap). Watch for them now.

Always notice the kind of bill each bird has. It will tell you right away what kind of food the bird eats. Birds with tweezer-like bills eat small insects or insect eggs tucked behind tree bark. Owls and hawks have hooked bills for tearing food apart. Birds like woodcocks have a very long bill that can open at the tip and seize tiny worms deep in the mud. Birds catching their food as they fly have big mouths that they keep wide open while on the move. Mergansers have serrated bills so they can hang on to slippery fish. The tiny hummingbird has a long thin bill for probing into tubular flowers. A bird’s bill is a very important tool!

Ravens are year-round birds here on MDI and I have a special fondness for them. They are often very noisy, especially in the breeding season when the young first leave the nest. Almost any time of the day you can see them flying over the island, either alone or with crows. To tell them apart, look for the raven’s larger size and the shape of its tail. Ravens have a wedge-shaped tail and shaggy throat feathers. Ravens are superb fliers. They make a croaking sound that is different from the cawing of a crow. Both birds are very intelligent.

If you have some apple trees still hanging on to frozen fruit, watch for partridges in the tree and snowshoe hares on the ground enjoying the treats. Starlings and mockingbirds also like frozen apples. Berry-bearing shrubs are favored by cardinals. A long list of wildlife enjoys the mountain holly and winterberry holly growing here on MDI. You may often see the hollies but not recognize them. A good plant book or the internet can help you.

Purple sandpipers are shorebirds to look for right now. They stand in small groups on the rocks as the waves come crashing in. Only when a big wave threatens do they move to another spot. Purple sandpipers are portly birds, dark but with a purple sheen if seen in the right light. My best views have been at Seawall. Take binoculars with you to really see them well. Look for them where the waves are crashing. No storm seems to bother them!

Two especially good places to look for winter birds are at the Somesville Pond next to the library and at the Bass Harbor dock. I like watching eiders catching sea urchins and then trying to swallow the prickly package whole. You can almost feel the bird’s satisfaction after getting those spines down its throat. I have marvelous photos I use in my lectures showing this. You want to cheer!

Look now at the trees and leafless bushes and see if you can locate nests that were made that you never knew were there. One of my best observations this past summer was made one evening as I was sitting on my porch before dusk. I was watching a fritillary butterfly look for a place to settle for the night. It flew high up into a very tall tree and that was its place. I had no idea one would go so high in such a tree to hide. The next day, the butterflies were feasting on my flowers again.

One year I saw what is called a murmuration of birds over Rome in Italy. Thousands of starlings were overhead, turning as one gigantic mass as they came in to settle in the trees along the river for the night. It was unforgettable.

Another unforgettable sight was in the tropics when hundreds of scarlet ibises, large red heron-type birds, came across the water and landed in the trees, and finally settled. The tropical tree looked as if it had been decorated for Christmas. It was very beautiful.

In our own sanctuary in Katonah, N.Y., hundreds of wood ducks used to fly in at twilight. You could hear their murmurings and their wings whistling as these multicolored birds settled in on the beaver pond. Once on the water, they seemed to disappear, and all was quiet.

In the last few years there has been one snow goose often seen at the Manet Corner. This plucky bird has managed to survive the traffic and all other such perils that it may encounter without its flock and has become a much-loved survivor. The kind man who was putting out food for it in winter died recently. I hope someone in the area will think of this goose and befriend it. The bird has been seen with flocks of mallards and Canada geese and certainly has a will to survive.

Send any questions, observations or photos to [email protected]

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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