Nature: Important links in the chain of life

A roadkill deer carcass ended up in a field nearby and it didn’t take very long for eagles to find it and enjoy the feast. The large bird flew off with an indignant sound after being disturbed. No roadkill is wasted with the scavengers always looking for food. You may not personally see them eating but scavengers are out at first light eating whatever was killed the night before. Enjoying the feast are owls, crows, ravens, eagles, small mammals, birds and insects.

Scavengers have an important place in the chain of life. In the warmer months, turkey vultures would also join the feast. Now they are in the South for the winter.

If you have lived on MDI for many years, you no doubt remember when cardinals did not spend the winter months here. When our family moved here in l972, cardinals always migrated south in the fall. They have now joined the blue jays in adding bright color to Maine’s winter snow-covered scene. I often receive wonderful photographs of cardinals in the snow. Enjoy watching them on a snowy day!

A couple of weeks ago, a column reader sent me a report about a varied thrush at his yard in Halls Quarry. This Pacific Coast bird is a long way from home, but it has a habit of wandering far afield at this time. Its nickname is ‘winter wanderer.’ The first specimen taken in the East was in 1848. Since then it has been a somewhat regular visitor.

Adult males are quite colorful with blue-gray on their back and rich burnt orange on the sides with a sooty black breast and orange lines over the eyes. Juvenile robins are somewhat similar to this plumage and might have a similar look. You have to be paying close attention to the plumage to be absolutely sure of identification. Look this bird up in your bird book or online. I personally have never seen a varied thrush…yet… but I’ll be watching. It is a true bird of the Pacific Northwest.

A flock of evening grosbeaks was feeding on some bittersweet this week in a friend’s yard. This plant is an invasive species but the birds like the berries. It was a pretty sight.

Whenever you see a new bird and want it identified, here are some helpful hints. How you describe it is very important. Strange as it may seem, color is the last thing to mention unless it is red all over, or something like that.

First, look at its size as compared to a crow, robin, sparrow or chickadee. Note the type of bill it has – how thick is the bill, how long is it? Does the bird have a crest?  What was it doing and where was it seen? What company did it keep or was it alone? Were its legs long or short? Take a photo – even a bad photo helps. All of these things are so helpful in figuring out what you saw.

Just before the closing date of the Cadillac Mountain road, my daughter and I drove up the mountain. The sky was silver and gray as the sun set, but it was still very lovely to see the scene again. Hikers can see snowy owls already if you know where to look. These owls come from a tree-less landscape, so they are usually on the rocks out in the open.

Energetic hikers are the ones to see these Arctic visitors. As winter snows fall, this large white owl will also be found sitting on local beaches, golf courses, around the airport and other such open spaces. They are big owls but not always easy to see since they blend in with landscape. As I mentioned in last week’s column, the first one I ever saw was sitting on the beach not too far from me and I just thought it was an old newspaper blowing in the wind. When I looked at it with binoculars, I could see was a large snowy owl. My second-best view was of a female snowy owl that sat on a rooftop near my house all day as carpenters worked on the house. They thought I had pet owl! These owls live where there are few people and are daytime hunters.

Listen now for nuthatches talking as they move about searching for insects. Both the red-breasted nuthatch and the white-breasted nuthatch can be seen on MDI. The red-breasted is a little smaller and its voice is more nasal. He is also chunkier looking. Lower New England has more white-breasted nuthatches coming to feeders. Here in Maine, you see more red-breasted nuthatches and they are fun to watch in the woods and at your feeder.

Send any questions or observations to [email protected].

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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