Long-tailed duck. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Nature: Interesting birds winter on MDI 

A noisy duck heard on the saltwater this month is the beautiful long-tailed duck (formerly called old-squaw duck and so listed in many bird books). The bird is quite beautiful with its pied pattern and long needle-pointed tail on the male. Its Latin name, Clangula hyemalis, means “noisy winter duck” and the bird lives up to its name by talking and gabbling wherever it gathers or flies about.  

Long-tailed ducks nest in the tundra of the subarctic zone, but they winter off Mount Desert Island and as far south as the coast of the Carolinas. It was like seeing an old friend as I walked along the beach recently in South Carolina and recognized them on the water. A favorite place of mine to see them locally is from the vantage point of the town dock in Manset. There I can sometimes see them swimming underwater. 

These ducks are sea ducks, medium sized and chunky. Whatever stage the plumage is in, the male’s long tail feathers are very noticeable. As he searches for special morsels of food, he sits low in the water with his head erect and his tail either well elevated or lowered for a moment. These handsome ducks fly low over the water in small flocks in irregular formation with many twistings and turnings. Their courtship antics are fun to watch, and although long tailed ducks do not nest here, pairs of them do start their courtship here. 

Cedar and bohemian waxwings are nice small birds to watch for now. Waxwings are elegant birds, always looking their best, and they have impeccable manners (most of the time). It is the cedar waxwing that is more commonly seen on the island. You can’t mistake it for it has a noticeable crest and its color is a warm brown. Having a crest sets it apart right away and helps to identify it quickly. Think of the local birds you know with a crest – blue jayspileated woodpeckers, waxwings, tufted titmousekingfisher and, of course, the cardinal 

You never know when you’ll see waxwings, for they are wanderers, traveling widely over Central and South America and the lower tier of Canada. They seem to drift southward in the fall and northward for nesting, but they might appear where least expected.  

It is their habit of stuffing themselves with whatever fruit they find that gets them into trouble. I saw some cedar waxwings one day in an Ellsworth parking lot that became inebriated on spoiled fruit on a tree. They just could not fly until they sobered up. 

It has been conservatively estimated that a flock of perhaps 30 waxwings could eat 90,000 cankerworms in a month. They will have to be forgiven their overconsumption of fermented fruit now and again. Watch for these lovely, crested birds. 

Red crossbill.

Look also for crossbills this time of year. Both the red crossbill and the white-winged crossbill are here year-round. They are birds of the Far North, but they do come here in the winter months when the cone crop fails in the north.  

When you get a look at the bird’s crossed bill, you wonder how it can use such a tool. No matter how strange their bills look, these birds can use them skillfully when extracting seeds from cones. They also survive on insects. 

Crossbills often fly about in large flocks, and they prefer to feed on the ends of the very high branches. This vantage point gives them the job of being the sentry for the feeding birds and they warn of any danger threatening the group. The male red crossbill is brick red and the female is a mottled greenish-yellow. The white-winged crossbill is similar in color but both the male and female birds have white wing bars.  

Watch for tracks nowadays and take a picture of them with something else in the photo that gives a size comparison.  

Let me know what you are seeing. If you have any questions, send them to [email protected]. 


Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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