Winter’s icy fingers dipped into the water of my pond this week, turning the water into a thin skim of ice all over the surface. I could visualize the frogs and turtles below the surface snug in the mud and ready for whatever winter has in store for us. This is a time when we still may see a great blue heron or two feeding in the salt water marshes and along the shore. They seem reluctant to leave here and head south but may wake up some morning to freezing rain and wish they were in Florida where “the livin’ is easy.” Those birds staying here too long may not survive. Scavengers living here then may enjoy an unexpected meal found on a local beach. Nothing is wasted in the natural world. The death of one creature is survival for another.
Snow bunting flocks were seen this week in a friend’s field. These mostly white birds do look like feathered snowflakes swirling about when they take off, swing around in the air and then land again to continue their search for edible seeds. These visitors from the far north come here in late October and will be seen here and there until mid April. These bluebird-sized sparrows nest in the Arctic tundra and only come here for a brief visit. They feed and sleep on the ground and rarely sit or land on a tree branch, post or rock. Look for them feeding on the ground among grass clumps, along the beach and in dirt parking areas. If anything disturbs them, they have a habit of rising into the air as one bird, and then swirling around and back to the ground again. Once they have landed, try to see them through your binoculars so you can really appreciate their beauty. They are difficult to see in a snowy landscape!
A friend has told me about a lot of beaver activity he’s encountered on his dog walks recently. Of all the mammals on this island, this is probably one, along with deer, that is easy to see. These industrious mammals never roam far from a pond in which they live. Three hundred feet is usually their limit for tree cutting. Beaver are active throughout the year, although inclement weather may keep them in their cozy lodges. They especially avoid hard rain. When out walking in the woods now, you can easily spot where they live and find the paths to their favorite trees. The beaver lodge is most often out in the water well away from shore, but some beavers prefer a bank den. Since the shores on this island tend to be rocky, there are more lodges found on Mount Desert Island than bank dens.
A beaver dam really is impressive and conspicuous. The depth of a pond helps protect the beavers and enables them to store extra food for a severe winter and to escape predators. If you find a large dam, it is probably the work of several beavers.
One of the good things about these ponds is that the pond provides an excellent habitat for many other creatures too, such as fish, frogs, turtles, small birds, salamanders, insects, ducks, large mammals and herons. I also would add that it gives humans a lot of entertainment as we watch all the creatures work and live their lives.
Turkeys were much in the news around Thanksgiving, and in the Islander, there was a great photo of several deer and a good number of wild turkeys in a field together. I would like to have been there to see that scene for real. Wild turkeys have made themselves a presence here on MDI in the last few years after they were re-introduced. For many island residents, wild turkeys are common visitors at feeders.
The famous ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson called this bird the “stream-lined version of the domestic turkey of barnyard fame.” The two birds are similar but quite different in many ways. You can see wild turkeys throughout the year as they move about searching the ground for seeds, nuts, grains and any food available. All winter, they will stay in mixed flocks.
When courtship time comes in the spring, the males put on quite a show as they strut about, fanning their beautiful tails and trying to impress the females. Any eggs and the nests, however, have to be kept secret from the male, for he will destroy the nest and smash the eggs if he finds them. The female raises the young alone and has to protect them from the males while the young grow. The courtship is an interesting show to watch. Large groups of females and males gather in a field or open area, with the females pretending not to notice the males and the males strutting about fanning their tails and trying to seduce the females. It goes on for hours! They do not mate for life as some birds do.
Mallards are such familiar ducks to us that we sometimes forget that they are very beautiful and can be fun to watch as well in local ponds and harbors. November and December are the months to see them doing their interesting courtship rituals. Take time to watch them.
As you walk through the woods and fields, look at the interesting mosses and lichens more easily seen now with the leaves gone from most of the trees. Dark green carpets of hair-cap moss are abundant on MDI. Plume moss looks like a miniature feather or fern forming a light green cushion on decaying wood. The many lichens growing on this island are very primitive plants and existed millions of years before flowering plants.
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