Nature: Snow makes hunters work harder

Snowshoe hare.

Getting around on the island may be harder for humans and wildlife this month. Snowshoe hares, with their white, furry winter coats, fit right in when snow covers the ground. Rodents traveling under the snow get around without the danger of attack from above that they experience on bare ground. A mouse running across an open area is easy game for a crow, hawk or other mouse-eater watching for a meal. The hunted breathe a little easier and the hunters have to work harder.

Dormant plants will do better with an insulating layer of snow covering them, giving protection from drying and shilling winds. Nature is prepared. The interaction between animals, plants and snow is complex.

A few inches of snow do not create trouble for animals such as foxes, but when the snow is deeper, animals exert more energy by bounding to move about when food is harder to get. Deer are more vulnerable to dog attacks when they break through crusty snow as they run while dogs are able to run on top.

When the weather gets cold, the feet of a partridge are doubled by small, comb-like projections that grow on either side of its toes, which make a built-on snowshoe. Watch for tracks when you are out and about.

Otters thrive in the snow and seem to have fun sliding on a slippery incline. Creatures that cannot adapt to a Maine winter are not part of a wintry scene. Many humans head south for that reason!

Tree sparrows are nice to see in January. The birds sport a reddish cap and a single breast spot. All through this month you may see them foraging in a weedy field or stopping at your feeder. They cling to a grass stalk to snatch seeds or to look below for any seeds that have fallen off.

The snow may look undisturbed as you walk along, but beneath the surface there is a network of tunnels made by mice and voles. Voles differ from mice in that they have small ears and eyes, blunt profiles and short, hairy tails. Even though they are active both day and night, they move in tunnels out of sight under the snow. They sometimes build ventilation holes to the surface.

Unlikely as it may sound, town dumps and parking lots are good places to go looking for birds. A winter trip may reward you with the sight of an Arctic visitor in the form of the Iceland gull. It appears whiter than the herring gulls we commonly see, and it is slightly smaller, which gives the impression that its head is too big for its body.

A large group of turkeys was seen recently on a wintry afternoon sitting on houses, trees and the ground not far from Seawall. Turkeys are strictly American birds and the only native representative of the pheasant family. They are large birds and always impressive. Seeing almost 100 of them sitting on lawns and on rooftops in Manset was impressive!  I wish my friend had taken a photo.

Wild turkeys are polygamists, and a strong gobbler probably has two or three hens he considers his. Adult toms are loners during the winter. Groups of hens and poults stay together and roam about in late fall and all winter. I have a few wandering by my house most every day. Every once in a while I meet small groups of them on island roads along farmlands. I like seeing them. They feed on a wide variety of animal and plant food. They will breed in April and May. During courtship is when you see the male spread his elegant tail trying to impress the females. It seems to work!

Northern hawk owl.

This is the time to watch for some visiting northern birds coming into the area. The hawk owl is one I like to see. Fortunately, one landed right outside one of my grandson’s bedroom windows. They sit so still they almost look like a stuffed toy – until they move their eyes. The one we saw was sitting a few feet away from the window and stayed there for hours. Lots of pictures were taken and birders came from all over the island to see it. Owls often do sit quietly like that.

The hawk owl is a medium-small owl with no ear tufts, a barred breast, yellow eyes and a rather long tail. Its posture is not quite so upright as some of our owls’ posture is. It is an occasional visitor here, often perching in the top of a tree. Our resident owls are the saw-whet owl, the great-horned owl and the barred owl.

Let me know what you are seeing or ask me a question at [email protected]

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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