Nature: Winter must give way to spring 

Many visitors to Mount Desert Island receive the Islander newspaper all year ‘round to keep in touch with their summer vacation news and happenings. I received an email recently from a reader of my column in South Carolina letting me know that robins and blackbirds were flocking in his yard in preparation for their flights north. “Any Day Now,” as a popular song says, we may see these blackbirds arriving on MDI lawns.  

I was in Melbourne Beach early one spring and saw robins along the roads getting ready to leave. Great numbers of them flew over and near the road as they gathered with much excitement and prepared to leave on spring migration. It is like this now with the blackbirds and grackles. Watch for them soon on MDI. 

March is here, and even though winter lingers in its many forms, winter has to give way to the coming of spring. 

The sun climbs higher each day, days become longer, sap runs from the trees and there are other subtle signs of spring all around for us to look for. Pussy willows bloom and the dark bills of starlings show touches of yellow. Nature is anxious to get on with spring after a snowy, cold winter. 

My favorite winter birds along the shore are purple sandpipers. I love seeing a flock feeding along the shore and rocks at Seawall. A favorite memory is one day at Seawall when I came upon a flock of about 50 of these handsome birds. They were busy moving about the exposed rocks looking for small crustaceans, periwinkles, mussels, sea worms and even those iron-clad barnacles! 

Purple Sandpiper (calidris maritima).

Purple sandpipers are quite tame, dark and portly birds standing on yellow legs. They feed where surges of the waves lift the floating sea wrack in its foam when the water covers the rocks. If a particular menacing wave threatens them, they will swim a few strokes to a nearby rock or fly in a wide arc over the waves and complete the curve back somewhere in the rocks. Nothing that winter has to offer bothers them. They are at home in the fog and in the cold winter winds. Their breeding grounds are on the shores of the upper North Atlantic and adjacent Arctic waters, but in the winter these interesting birds fly south, and we see them on local storm jetties and wave-washed rocks. Keep looking for them. 

When you walk on the shore or on a beach and meet a flock of birds there, keep in mind that it may be a resting time for them and it is very important that they do rest. As fun as it may be to see them fly up in front of you, it may cause great stress to the birds when they need to restore their strength, especially on migration. Seabirds fly thousands of miles on migration and rely on their resting periods to restore lost energy. Repeatedly causing them to fly puts them at great risk. Keep your dogs from running ahead for the same reason. It may be fun for the dogs but very stressful for migrating birds. 

With the arrival of March and its capricious weather, don’t miss trying to get out and see the courtship routine of the woodcock. The strange, plump shorebird nesting in the edge of the woods in fields puts on quite a show as it tries to attract a female. In early spring, the males arrive from the South and start their courtship. First the male finds a spot in a wet pasture or at the edge of the woods. He struts around on the ground while making a peculiar ‘buzzzzzzing’ call several times. Then, at the proper moment, the chunky bird bursts from the ground and flies high in the air. When the bird reaches the proper height, he sings a short song and then drops quickly back to where he took off. He does this over and over again all night long. The ‘dance’ is fun to watch if the bird doesn’t mind being in the beam of a flashlight. I suspect that Somes Meynell Sanctuary in Somesville may be having field trips to watch the performance on the island. Contact the naturalist on Facebook or by phone to find out. 

The woodcock is very chunky, has eyes set high on the head and a very long bill. The bird’s bill is designed so that when the bird probes deep in the mud for worms, the tip of the bill can open, grab the slippery worm and draw it out to eat. The eyes of the woodcock are set very high on the head to avoid getting in the way of this maneuver.  

You may see skunks and raccoons prowling about late in the evenings if you’re out and about. Keep your trash well covered and secure so you won’t have any conflicts. Keep your pets under good control.  

Cool weather in South Carolina has caused much suffering for wildlife, but most have survived. Plants have not been happy to be covered with ice. It was unusual weather for the South. We here on MDI will be happy to move into spring. “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on!” Keep watch for the first pussy willow! 


Send any questions or observations 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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