We’re starting a new year on the calendar, but we humans know that. Nature is knee deep in winter and surviving as planned. Many will die so others can eat and survive.
Even at this time of year, with or without snow, life is busy in woods and fields and underwater waiting for spring and the cycle to begin again.
I think probably great horned owls are the first to nest, even with lots of snow on the ground and winter storms going on. The mother owl often is covered in snow. Baby bears are born while the mother is sound asleep.
Feathered residents and visitors keep busy this time of year searching for food and staying warm. When I first got interested in birds, it was the white-breasted nuthatch that intrigued me. They were frequent visitors to my mother’s feeder on the windowsill. That was in Connecticut. Here on Mount Desert Island, it is the red-breasted nuthatch that is more commonly seen.
The red-breasted nuthatch is smaller than the white-breasted nuthatch and is chunkier. It is sometimes referred to as a “dumpy” little nuthatch. Its back is blue-gray; its belly rusty red. Its cap is black and it also has a black line through the eye. The white-breasted nuthatch has a white breast and no eye line. Both species live on the island, but the red-breasted is more commonly seen.
I was hiking one time a few years ago with my grandson’s first-grade class in the woods near the pond just outside of Northeast Harbor when a red-breasted nuthatch went zooming by me at eye level straight at a tree, dove in a hole and disappeared. We looked around a bit and sure enough there was a small nest hole in the tree about 10 feet up the trunk. As we listened, we could hear the sound of baby birds. A short time later, a parent bird came out and went off looking for more food.
No name could be more appropriate for this bird than the “upside-down” bird, at least in its waking hours as it goes searching on tree trunks for food. Its unusually long-toed feet are designed to give it utmost stability no matter what position it takes. The bird is stocky and perfectly balanced.
In the winter, you often find nuthatches in the company of chickadees. The main foods for nuthatches in the winter are acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts and the pits from cherries.
Since both male and female nuthatches stay in the same territory all year, they often pick the same mate year after year. Males and females have separate roost holes in a tree. They will begin their courtship song in late winter. The song is not particularly musical, but it is interesting.
Only a few birds can live where it is cold in the winter, for cold affects airborne insects – a major source of bird food. Birds such as flycatchers and warblers have to go where they can find insects.
Scavengers are not particularly fussy about their food, and they can get along when it is cold on roadkill or dead things washed up along the shore. Such birds thrive on what we throw away and on roadkill. Eating enough food to keep warm is a major activity for northern birds. A dead seal washed up on the beach provides many meals for different creatures.
Juncos are frequently seen winter birds. They migrate in small flocks and are seen moving about all over this island. They are quite friendly and easily identifiable, for as they fly away from you, they prominently show their gray tails that are lined with white feathers on either side.
The smallest bird to look for in the winter is the kinglet. Both the ruby-crowned kinglet and the golden-crowned kinglet are here. They are tiny and very colorful. They are just 3 1/2 inches long.
They feed on insect eggs and wintering spiders. The golden-crowned kinglet has a yellow stripe on the top of its head that does look like a golden crown. You may often see them flying about with chickadees, downy woodpeckers and nuthatches.
In spite of the weather, keep your eyes open for all that is happening out there in the cold on our island.
Let me know what you are seeing and tell me about any adventures you are having with wildlife at [email protected]