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Nature: When it snows, the hunted breathe a bit easier 



A New Year begins for us and all the wildlife sharing this island with us and there are still a few surprises to be had. A friend in Bar Harbor saw a turkey vulture flying over Eagle Lake on Dec. 31. Vultures are usually enjoying the sun and beach much farther south. These large birds are usually gone by the end of September and don’t return until April. Islanders spending the winter in the southern states see both turkey vultures and the black vultures frequently in the sky and on the beaches. Seeing one down there closely just above the beach is fun. They’re not pretty birds but they are exciting to see at close range. 

People often ask me why they have no feathers on their bald and reddish head. Vultures are carrion eaters. A dead rotting carcass is what they dearly love and it is much better to have a bald head when you eat this way. It’s easier to clean. 

With the thousands of people coming to this island and the amount of roadkill to be had, vultures, crows and other scavengers are kept very busy early in the morning finding newlydead animals on the road. Small birdscrowsravens plus other meateating mammals will come to the feast. Insects, too, are there if you get close enough to see them. 

To identify a vulture, remember to look for a large black bird teetering in the sky with its wings held so they form a dihedral. Their wingspread is 6 feet. Eagles hold their wings level. 

There was a possible sighting of a gyrfalcon this past week so keep watch for this magnificent and rare visitor from the far north (this bird’s home is in the Arctic). In the winter, this largest of the falcons has long pointed wings and flies very fast. It has both a white phase and a dark phase. Like all falcons, its wing strokes are rapid and very strong. This bird usually can catch whatever it wants because of its highspeed flying. That’s what is fun in watching birds. You never know when something special or unusual will be seen.  

A friend said to me, “I forgot to put the corn out for the deer this morning.” I immediately said that I didn’t think it was a good idea to feed corn to deer. There is a lot of good information online about it. The consensus is not to feed corn to the deer in your yard in the winter. Their digestion process naturally plans for low food intake times in their life and the corn can kill them. Good help for deer comes in the form of planting mastbearing trees in your area that they need for good food and conifers for coverMake openings to stimulate tree growth where they can winter comfortably and browse. Don’t be upset if coyotes eat a few. Coyotes are a natural control on over populations of deer, such as we have here on MDI. 

Every time we get snow, the hunted breathe a little easier, for the hunters have harder work trying to find them. Dormant plants will do a little better with a blanket of snow covering them. The interaction between plants and snow is complex. A few inches of snow do not cause trouble for animals such as foxes, but if the snow deepens to 6 inches or more, these animals bound through it to move about, expending more energy at a time when it is harder to find food. Deer become vulnerable to dog attacks when deep snow slows escape. Dogs can run on the surface while the deer breaks throughslowing it down. 

When the weather gets cold, the surface of the partridges feet are doubled by small comblike projections that grow on either side of the birds’ toes, making a builtin snowshoe. Watch for partridge tracks.  

A friend showed me a nice photo of a spruce grouse he had taken while out skiing recently. We have two grouse living on MD – the ruffed grouse (or partridge) and the spruce grouse. The ruffed grouse is the one most people see commonly. The spruce grouse is seen only occasionally but it is a beautiful and VERY friendly bird. I know hikers who have had to lift one off the trail in order to pass by. It just didn’t want to move! 

The male spruce grouse is very handsome. In his chickenlike body, the male is brown with a black throat, breast and tail. The comb on its head right over the eyes is bright red. The female is brown and barred. I once found a dead male spruce grouse on the road in Bass Harbor. Sometimes reports of seeing them have been from Ship Harbor and Wonderland. Always be watching for them. 

Let me know what you see when you’re out and about. Send any questions, observations or photos to [email protected] or call 244-3742.  

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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