A gannet in flight. PHOTO COURTESY OF RUTH GRIERSON

Nature: Winter preparations are beginning 



It may still feel like summer weather and the island is still bustling with tourists, but in the wildlife world, preparations are going on now for the long winter to come. 

Leaving the island is one preparation for many birds breeding here as they could not survive the cold weather. Birds breeding in the far north come here for their survival and winter birding can be a fascinating adventure. If food is scarce in the far north, we see more snowy owls here in the winter months. Some of these owls even made it as far south as Florida last year. I was surprised one day last winter when I was birding in South Carolina and watching egrets, herons and spoonbills to see a flock of buffleheads in the southern lagoon. It is a familiar bird to see here but not one I expected to see in the South! It was like meeting an old friend far from home. 

Here on Mount Desert Island, loons have to be mindful of the weather as winter approaches and not misjudge their last flight from their nesting pond. Loons need a long expanse for takeoff from their ponds. If the water freezes, they may not be able to get in the air and will probably be eaten by an eagle or other predator.  

The loon’s body is a strange one for the feet are placed very far back on the bird, making it impossible for it to walk on land and making it necessary for it to have a long stretch of water in order to get into the air. On and in the water, they are experts at swimming and diving for fish They can spend the winter here on the ocean and that is a winter sport for you to watch them fishing and spending their days in local harbors. The call of the loon is very special, and these birds are fun to watch during all seasons. 

The floor of the woods is impressive now with fungi in an array of colors, sizes and shapes. Most people don’t know that fungi, as well as being interesting to see in local woods and fields, is vitally important to nature’s housekeeping, for they are waste disposing organisms whose silent and often invisible activities break down and recycle the organic debris of the world. Without them, plants and animals would have buried themselves in their own waste eons ago. Since life began on earth, fungi have been at work. 

Whale watchers out looking for wonderful whales may get to see gannets flying and fishing offshore. Occasionally, these large, handsome sea birds will be seen fishing off Seawall – that makes for an exciting day! They put on an aerial ballet of the finest kind. 

I think I fell in love with gannets years ago when our family visited and lived for a week on Bonaventure Island off Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula. We spent hours every day watching and studying the gannets in their large, smelly, noisy and fascinating colonies. The birds are goose-sized sea birds, twice the size of herring gulls, with noticeable back wing tips. Their face always looks fierce and they are very vocal. 

Their colonies in Canada are fascinating to visit, especially the one at Bonaventure Island. Tours to see the birds can be arranged and you’ll have a memorable trip. When I first saw them a number of years ago, a French couple ran a bed and breakfast on the island where we could stay, and we just walked each day to the colony. French fiddle music and food made the evening special. This little inn is no longer there for the whole island is now a sanctuary for the birds. Special boat trips take you out the short distance from shore and observations platforms at the colony give you excellent views. A very nice museum on the main shore explains everything. It’s a fascinating place. If you speak French, all the better! 

In recent years, I’ve visited the large colonies in Newfoundland where gannets live. There we walked across large expanses of sheep fields to get to the gannet cliffs. The noise of the birds and the birds flying overhead made for an exciting scene. 

Going across the sheep fields, I noticed some black feathers on the ground and of course picked one up to take a closer look. I sniffed it and what I suspected to be was so, for it had the tell-tale pungent smell of oil, so I knew it was a from a petrel that some predator had caught. Petrels are sea birds only coming to land to nest in their burrows at the edge of the sea cliffs or underground on sea islands. The rest of their lives are on or over the sea. They are seen in our waters here when you are out from the shore.  

Colonies of petrels are found on Big Duck Islands visible from Seawall. These two islands are now sanctuaries for nesting birds. Take your binoculars if you are near the islands. These are special islands to see from the water and to know about. You can read about them online with The Nature Conservancy and The Audubon Society. They are important nesting islands. 

My most recent trip was just before COVID arrived. We were on a tour boat to see sea birds and whales out of Bay Bull, Newfoundland, Canada. We did not see whales but we did see a school of tuna! I just knew we were seeing something special when the captain and crew on our boat were getting excited and we moved forward. I was sitting opposite the captain. It was a boatload of tourists and a frenzy of activity over the water and of course I had my binoculars ready on the scene. At one magical moment, I saw a giant tuna fully leaping out of the water in its excitement. What a sight that was! It’s a huge fish! A boatload of happy fellow adventurers, big fish, birds of all kinds in Newfoundland! I can still see it now, several years later, when I close my eyes. 

We can’t have such excitement every day but living on this island gives us many daily adventures of a smaller kind if we pay attention wherever we are. Always be watchful. This is hawk migration time and this island is on a main route. Keep looking up at the hawks going by and consult your bird book for how to recognize the different types.  

Send any questions or observations to me at [email protected]. 

 

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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