February is a fickle month. It is full of surprises. On a warmer sunny day, you may even see a mourning cloak butterfly in a sunny spot. A warm day will ring them out of their hiding places, but as soon as the cooler air comes back they retreat to their warmer hiding places again. These individuals that we see in February emerge from their chrysalids 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 in May when they will lay their eggs. For 10 months they live as adults, which is a very long time for butterflies.
Many birds are engaging in courtship and nest planning, while great horned owls may be sitting on eggs in a nest covered with snow. A few bird songs can be heard as each new day begins.
Bird songs are a delight to hear as winter winds down. Wintering purple finches are among the most melodious of our finches and the males pour out their lovely melodies to impress the females. If the male’s chosen one is nearby, the male will often throw himself out into the air, still singing and fluttering his wings, in ecstasy.
This raspberry colored finch is a bird of the forest but it has adapted readily to civilization and now comes to feeders and dooryards. Coniferous trees and a good supply of sunflower seeds will attract this bird year-round. Hearing the male sing at this time of year is an especially lovely moment.
Males at this time of year are showing a little red in their plumage as March approaches. When the male is in his full adult plumage he is bright red and uses this color to impress the females. Females in contrast are brown, heavily striped birds with a broad whitish line over the eye. They look quite a bit like sparrows but their bills are typically finch-like. Although pine grosbeaks are similarly colored the grosbeak’s larger size — nearly the size of a robin — helps you to know the difference.
While birding near the harbor in Bar Harbor this past week a friend of mine caught sight of an immature harlequin duck. It was keeping company with a flock of eider ducks. Harlequins are not usually seen in the harbor. Normally one would drive to Schoodic and look in the waters off the ocean drive for these handsome ducks. In describing an adult harlequin duck you have to use the word “elegant.” The immature duck seen in Bar Harbor was a young male. Harlequins are small ducks, and they sometimes cock their tails. Roger Tory Peterson. a well known bird artist and authority on them described it as a “dark and bizarre” bird. You have to be a good observer to recognize it when it is not a male in full breeding plumage. I was quite pleased with myself when I did see a young one last year in Newfoundland waters and recognized it properly. There is no mistaking an adult male in breeding plumage. Harlequins nest far to the north but in the winter can be seen as far south as Massachusetts. Look for them around wave washed rocks and ledges. Take your binoculars and look carefully. The sighting in Bar Harbor recently was a very good one!
Through the many years I have been writing this column, I have gotten reports of all-white birds of various species. It happens and when you see a commonly known bird appear all-white it is noteworthy. A white pileated woodpecker would definitely be a rare sight and I would like to see the one appearing in Maine now. Strangely enough other birds do not seem to care about the color variation although the bird may stand out and be caught by predators. Here on MDI we have white deer and partially white deer being seen all over the island. They definitely attract your attention, but other deer have no problem with it. When a deer appears white or partially white and brown the deer is called a piebald deer. It is said to be a color variation caused by over-population according to the experts.
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