It may be cold outside, but seal pups are being born even now on the ice near offshore islands. Hardy members of my family watched mothers nursing their newborns this past week. From the size of the seals, they identified them as gray seals, the larger of the two we see regularly in local waters. If you are interested in seeing them up close, I recommend going to the Dorr museum at the College of the Atlantic and looking at their excellent seal exhibits. Standing right next to the exhibits gives you a proper perspective of their size. When you see them in the water, you can’t see most of their big bodies.
In spite of the ice, snow and harsh winter weather conditions, these interesting seals have their pups starting in late December, and they continue through February. When the pups are born, they are about 35 inches long and they weigh about 30 pounds. They nurse for about three weeks, and even after weaning, the pups stay on shore. Male gray seals are polygamous and establish quite a harem (up to six females). A lot of challenging and fighting goes on between the bulls.
Gray seals spend a great deal of time in the water, but when necessary will pull out on a rocky ledge or floating ice. They are ungainly mammals on land and have to waddle along on their chests. They may sleep underwater, on the surface or on land. They feed on a variety of sea life including fish, crustaceans, squid and mollusks.
They’re not a pretty mammal nor handsome, but they are very interesting and part of the scene in Maine waters. When pups leave their breeding areas, they may travel as far as 600 miles from this location. Barring unforeseen events, they can live to be 40 years old in the wild.
I see them mostly in the summer as they cruise along the shore at Seawall watching the humans watching them. They seem to be curious about us. The gray seal’s head has a horsey shape and look to it. Sometimes they are called ‘horse-head’ seals. The harbor seals that are quite common in this area have a ‘puppy’ look and are much smaller.
The harbor seals do not form harems, but there is a great deal of fighting over the chosen females. Harbor seal pups are born from late March through mid-June. These pups can swim right away, but they are nursed for three or four weeks. Pups usually can be seen from shore at several locations on Mount Desert Island.
A neighbor of mine told me about an interesting observation she had recently. Several big icicles had formed on the edge of her roof and were hanging down not far from her bird feeder. She was surprised one day to see several of the smaller birds, like chickadees and goldfinches, getting drinks of the melting water from the icicle tips. The birds would hover like hummingbirds with wings flapping and take a drink of the icy water. I would have liked to watch them do this.
Red polls are visiting island feeders these days. These little visitors are like goldfinches and siskins in their actions at a feeder, but the male red polls are recognized by their pink breasts, the bright red caps on their foreheads and black chins. These little birds are subarctic wanderers, and you never know when they will arrive exactly, but they are always nice birds to have visiting you. Keep a watch for them now. Besides getting some food at your feeders, they like weedy fields and thickets where they can find seeds. Areas where alders, birches and willows grow are their favorite places. In the summer, they also will eat insects. They are apt to be quite tame.
A friend asked me one day if wild turkeys can count, for every time she has seen a flock of these turkeys, there are 10 birds in it. I rather doubt they can count, but I don’t really know the answer, for I have seen many more than 10 crossing a road or moving through a field. They are large birds and quite impressive as they take to the air. They are often reluctant to ‘fly up and away’.
Wild turkeys are truly American birds and the only native American representative of the pheasant family. They are not really pretty except perhaps when seen up close and in certain sunlight when their iridescent feathers show at their best. At times, they can be called handsome, especially when the male is strutting and when a female is in her prime and walking in the woods. I had a wonderful view of wild turkeys courting and going through the mating ritual in Georgia a couple of years ago. My daughter and I were able to watch them for a long time on the green lawn beneath the large oak tree spreading out their graceful branches ‘dripping’ with Spanish moss. It was an unforgettable sight. The females have to keep their nests secret from the males, for if a male finds the nest, he will destroy the eggs. The female alone takes care of the nest and young. Wild turkeys nest in trees at night for safety. Quite often, from 10-40 birds will roam about and feed together. Maybe there is something about the number 10. I’ll do some research on that.
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