Snow buntings swirl like snowflakes

A lone snow bunting arrived this past week and is being seen as it visits an island feeder regularly with other seed-eating birds. Snow buntings usually travel in flocks, but this one seems to be traveling alone. When I was in Newfoundland in June, I saw large flocks of these mostly white snow buntings feeding on the ground in their breeding habitat. They are beautiful to see in flight as they fly up from the ground, swirl around in the air like snowflakes and then land almost in the very same spot from which they started. They all but disappear in the short grasses when they land on the ground. Their mostly white and some brown feathers blend in perfectly with the ground plants and pebbles.

Snow buntings are one of the hardiest of the winter birds. They nest at the very edge of the Arctic frontier, and they winter only to the lower limits of snow. We see them on MDI when they come into the area and look for food in island driveways and along wind-swept areas along the shore where they look for exposed seeds. Watch for snow buntings whenever you are out and about now.

In the Hulls Cove area, a beautiful redbellied woodpecker is now being seen quite often at feeders. This handsome woodpecker makes a bold statement with its bright red feathers on the crown and nape. The female has the red on her nape only. The back of this beautiful bird is barred with black and white; the belly is white. There is no doubt that this handsome bird is a woodpecker if you watch it for awhile and notice its heavy, chisel-shaped bill. If the bird comes to your feeder, it will spend time on any suet you have out for the birds.

Sometimes it makes one wonder how the brain and head of a woodpecker can take all that pounding that they do when building a nest, looking for food or in courtship antics. Birds that pound as they do have built-in protection in their strong necks, thick skulls and cushioning space between the heavy outer membrane and the brain. All of these built-in protectors help the bird live the life that it does.

Woodpeckers also have specially adapted sticky tongues so they can lap up ants. The tongue is very long, and even the hard tip is specially adapted for spearing insects.

We have only a few woodpeckers living here on this island, and they are the downy and hairy woodpeckers. These two birds look very much alike, but the downy is quite small. When seen together, it is easy to tell them apart, but when seen singly, note the size of the bird’s bill to help with identification. The downy has a shorter bill.

The pileated woodpecker is the largest of this tribe and about the size of a crow. On the pileated’s head is a flaming red crest that cannot be missed. They are seen year round and all over this island.

Less often seen is the blackbacked woodpecker. There are nesting records for this island. In 1986, a nest with young was found in a dead spruce in Bass Harbor near Bass Harbor Head. I have seen the rarer threetoed woodpecker on my property near Ship Harbor only a couple of times in the years I’ve lived here since 1972.

Everyone paying the slightest attention to the birds of the areas has of course seen flickers, and a few actually have seen yellowbellied sapsuckers. More often than not, the round holes drilled by the sapsucker in old apple trees are seen more than the bird itself. Check out any old apple trees you have near you or any you pass on a hike and look for the precise, round holes drilled around the tree trunk by this bird. This bird passes though here in the spring and fall. It only occasionally nests here.

Lapland longspurs may appear with snow buntings, and it is possible to see a horned lark with these birds. Hikers on the mountains are especially apt to find them. Of all the larks in the world, only two occur in North America. Readers of English novels frequently read references to the skylark and its beautiful song. I was lucky enough to hear one sing in England once when a friend and I were hiking in the wide open spaces that they enjoy, and it was an unforgettable song.

In England, the horned lark is often called a ‘shore lark’ for larks gather in large numbers in the fall along the shore. They may number in the thousands!

Redpolls may appear at your feeders this month. Pine siskins should be arriving as well. Watch for them at your feeders. Tree sparrows, often nicknamed the ‘winter chippy,’ may come to your feeder any day soon. Rafts of whitewinged scoters are often seen now off Bar Island. Deer are wandering about in family parties at this time of year, so be very cautious after dark when driving in and out of towns.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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