A male red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) roadside in the snow. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Nature: Things are seldom what they seem



Mockingbirds used to be Southern birds only, with maybe an occasional summer visitor seen here on MDI. We moved to Maine in 1972, and, at that time they were considered seasonal birds here on Mount Desert Island. Through the years, their numbers increased and then some started staying through the winter in certain areas, though they are still not commonly seen in northern Maine. In recent years, I have not had as many reports of sightings as I used to get. If you have seen them recently or have one at your feeder regularly, I would appreciate knowing about it. Take a picture! 

The mockingbird is about the size of a blue jay, with a grey head and upper parts, yellow eyes, white under parts and long blackish tail with white on the outer parts. Look also for white wing bars and white patches on the wings that are very visible in full flight. Male and females are similar in color. 

Like other thrushes, mockingbirds are great singers and they can mimic other birds very well. The mimics we can see here are mockingbirds, catbirds and brown thrashers. As a musician, I found it interesting to learn that mockingbirds sing their song pattern three times, brown thrasher sings theirs two times and catbirds just once. Blue jays can mimic the sound a hawk makes so well that smaller birds get scared away from a feeder and then the blue jay can feast in private! In a residential area, mockingbirds, thrashers and blue jays like to have a high perch from which to sing. 

Be on the lookout for crossbills now. This small bird has a most unique bill and you wonder at first glance why nature made it so. However cumbersome it may seem, the bird uses this tool very well in eating its favorite food found in pine cones. The crossed bills enable it to extract the seeds from the cone while the bird’s tongue helps grab the seed and makes it available for eating. A regular straight bill would not work but the crossed tips of this bird’s bill do the job. The strange bill seems to serve them well. 

In the winter, you may easily get a look at crossbills on the side of the road where salt has accumulated. They are pretty small birds, about the size of sparrows, and their actions in a tree extracting seeds make you think of parrots. They breed in Canada and come into our area in the winter. Watch for them as you are out and about. Crossbills, like some other birds from the far north where encounters with people are few or nonexistent, will let you get quite close to them. 

Kinglets are other little feathered ‘jewels’ looking for food in our winter trees. Sometimes they come to feeders and I remember seeing one very close up on a windowsill as it enjoyed the winter sun for a minute. Kinglets are beautiful and very small but full of spirit. They have thick and fluffy beauty to enable them to survive winter temperatures and conditions. All winter, no matter the weather, they find food to eat in the form of insect eggslarvae and other similar food that they glean from all manner of hiding places in the woods and fields. I consider it a very good day when I have seen a kinglet! Keep watch for them. 

Fishermen now may find redspotted newts in their minnow traps. These little amphibians sometimes get caught as they swim around under the ice. Hopefully, they all are let go to get back under the ice, for they are harmless and interesting local wildlife. They are terrestrial and may be found wandering anytime in warmer weather in the daytime, especially after a rain. In the winter, as mentioned, they are often found under the ice and in minnow traps. They don’t bite and can just be released into the water again. This little creature has many changes in its life and each change is very different. In the summer, you may meet a red aft in the woods as it appears then as a small red-orange salamander wandering about. Its life history is full of changes, some of it terrestrial and some aquatic. Take a moment and look this one up online or in a good amphibian book. Some of you may know the Gilbert and Sullivan song that comes to me at this moment, “Things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream…” Nature is full of such surprises. 

Send any questions, observations or photos to [email protected]. 

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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