Nature: Small birds do a disappearing act in winter

Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) in flight.

I have not seen any myself yet, but snow buntings are to be expected now. A flock of these small birds looks like swirling snowflakes themselves. When the swirling mass lands, they just seem to disappear since their feathers merge with the landscape. Move toward where they ‘disappeared’ and they fly up right in front of you.

These interesting birds come from beyond the tree line in the Arctic. They seem indifferent to the cold. They only come down this far south in the winter. Look for them in open country or along the ocean shores. Barren beaches, dunes, inland fields and such spots are where they look for food consisting of seeds, tiny crustaceans, insects and the like.

Snow buntings start to arrive in New England in October and November. They will head northward again at the first sign of spring. I remember the first time I saw them in Newfoundland and farther up in Labrador. It was like meeting an old friend in its home.

The snow bunting is sparrow sized and no other local bird now has so much white on it. Overhead it looks entirely white! As they run around on the ground, they look quite white and brown. They are apt to travel about with horned larks.

Horned larks are slender-billed birds you are apt to see in an open field or along the beach. They usually like to walk when on the ground. Look this one up in your bird book or online so you recognize it. Most of the lark family live in the Old World, but the horned lark is a native born American. The first part of its name comes from the two pointed feathered tufts on its head which, when the bird raises them, look like tiny horns.

The bird’s feet are interesting. It has an unusually long hind toe that adapts nicely for walking on land. It also sings while flying, not loudly, but for a long time. Horned larks are erratic fliers and seem to enjoy darting about as the spirit moves them. They are worth looking for when you are out and about in the open spaces, such as along the seashore or on top of a mountain.

Male surf scoter.

Sea ducks are nice to see these days. Take time to drive to your favorite dock or parking area along the shore and use your binoculars. A friend saw a beautiful surf scoter (sometimes called a coot) last week near Bar Harbor. This sea duck has a thick-based, multicolored bill and prominent white markings on the nape and forehead. If the bird is male, it will have two white cheek spots. You do need binoculars or a telescope sometimes to see some duck markings.

As a rule, sea ducks are heavy diving ducks with short necks. They are seen best in the winter along our coasts. They often are in big mixed flocks and well worth looking at. These ducks often fly in a line formation in large flocks along the shore.

Hunters commonly call them coots and they are eagerly sought after in the Northeast for food. The ducks are able to stay underwater a long time. They dive for underwater animal food. If you watch them were there is surf, it is fun to see them dive into the waves. They are seen in the wintertime from the Bay of Fundy to Florida.

How to tell a crow from a raven is a question I’m often asked since they are both regular birds to see on this island. It is not always easy to tell the difference at first. The raven is the larger of the two, if you see them together. The raven is much bigger. Listen to its voice. Crows ‘caw’ and ravens ‘croak’!

Ravens have a wedge-shaped tail and a heavy bill and shaggy throat feathers. Ravens are superb fliers and are often seen doing tumbles and dives just for the fun of it. They will turn over and fly upside down for a few moments, which is fun to watch. Their food habits are helpful for they, along with crows, eat carrion and roadkill. They are excellent scavengers. I have seen them dropping clams on the beach to break them open, as crows often do. Check the black birds you see this week and see if you readily identify crows from ravens. Both live here year-round and both are very intelligent birds.

Enjoy the out of doors and whatever you see.

If you have questions or observations, send them 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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