Winter is a time of harsh weather for humans in ways we all know well and so it is with wildlife that lives life on and near the ocean. A friend in Bar Harbor spends a good bit of time walking and observing nature in Bar Harbor and this week sent me great photos of a dovekie he saw near the dock. I suspect many people living here are not familiar with the dovekie for it truly is a seabird not often coming close to our shores, except when storms force it do so. Its small size is what will probably make you notice the bird if you do see one on the water.
The dovekie is actually the smallest of the alcids (birds that only come to land to nest). Except when nesting you would not expect to find a dovekie near shore so seeing one near the dock in Bar Harbor is special. Dovekies look almost like very small, toy, black-and-white birds on the water. I have been fortunate in my life to have been able to visit their nesting colonies in Newfoundland in the spring where thousands of these birds and others nest on high cliffs along the shore. It is a noisy, colorful and unforgettable scene. We were surrounded both on land and in the sky overhead by dovekies, puffins, murres, auks, gannets, guillemots, gulls, petrels, terns, eagles, crows and ravens. It was an awesome sight and very noisy!
As we walked across pasture land to get to the cliffs I noticed a bird’s wing feather on the ground. When I picked it up for a closer look I could tell it was the wing of a petrel for it smelled oily. Petrels nest on our outer islands right here near Mount Desert Island. This bird lives its life on the sea except when nesting on remote coastal islands.
Unlikely as it may sound, dumps and parking lots are often good places to see birds. A visit to such places in the winter may reward you with an Iceland gull visiting here from the Arctic. Regular gulls to be seen here are the herring gull and black-backed gull. This Arctic visitor often joins our regular gulls at local dumps, for dumps mean food to wildlife. When my daughter and I were in Labrador last fall we asked local people at the little cafe where we might see bears and they suggested we try the local dump not far from town. The first time we tried turned out to be too early and we spent the afternoon there watching humans come and go with pickups and leaving their trash. We finally decided to leave and were out of sight from the actual dump when a bear ran across the road right in front of us and into the woods. We quickly turned around and headed back and once more waited. About a half hour later up over the trash came a young black bear.
That was exciting but very soon another bear came up into view and finally we had three black bears rummaging in the trash in sight. They seemed to find lots of edibles to eat and it obviously was a regular place for them to forage. Most of the time they were moving about with their heads low and sniffing for goodies, but at one point one of the bears stood up to survey the scene. I had no idea they were so big! It would have been eye-to-eye with a six-foot man. My car has a sun roof so we used that as our photo blind and stayed safely inside. “Mission accomplished” that day and several other late afternoons parked in the dump! We discovered later that Port Hope Simpson was the small village where our late President Bush (Sr.) used to go on fishing vacations. He was very well liked there.
Those of you out and about on the snow should be watching for snow fleas that are quite visible. These little creatures make the snow looked as if black pepper has been sprinkled on it. Take a close look and if the “pepper” jumps, you are seeing snow fleas. These tiny beings are members of the springtail family of insects and they have the unusual characteristic of being active all winter, especially on warmer days. Generally when the weather gets cold insect activity slows down and stops. At other times of the year, springtails live under damp leaves, the bark of logs and other moist dark spots throughout the world including the polar regions. Some springtails are luminous, others are extraordinary jumpers. Fish eat them when they collect on the surface of the water and I have seen birds searching through the seaweed for them. This source of food is especially helpful when the weather turns cold after the southern migrants have just returned and food is hard to find. Springtails are strictly vegetarian creatures feeding on algae, pollen and leaf mold.
The island is full of wonderful wildlife and natural things to see. Take time to enjoy them whenever you can.
Send any questions, observations or photos to [email protected] or call 244-3742.