January is the beginning of a new year for all of us here on this Maine island. The weather can be harsh, and snow soon may blanket the ground to fit our expectations of a Maine winter. It really is important to many creatures that it does snow soon. Balmy, sunny days and bare ground are not what many creatures are adapted for.
Snowshoe hares have turned white so they can blend into the landscape and escape some of their enemies. Being white in a brown landscape is not a good thing! Rodents traveling beneath the snow can do so without always worrying about an attack from above. The snow gives them good cover. The hunted breathe easier with a blanket of snow on the ground. The hunters have to work harder to find food. Dormant plants do much better with a protective covering of snow that keeps them from drying out in chilly winds.
A few inches of snow does not create trouble for animals such as foxes, but if we should get six or more inches of snow, foxes and the like must bound through it to move about, expending energy at a time when it is harder to find food. Deer become vulnerable to attacks by free-roaming dogs when deep snow slows their escape. Dogs often can run on the surface while deer break through the crust and are slowed down.
When the weather gets cold, the surface of partridges’ feet are doubled by small comb-like projections which grow on either side of the birds’ toes, giving them built-in ‘snow shoes’. If you are out walking after a snowfall, look for the tracks of grouse in the woods.
Some animals appear to thrive very well in the snow. Otters, for instance, really seem to have fun on slippery slopes in the woods or near a pond. Creatures that cannot survive in snow and cold conditions are not part of the Maine winter scene. Traveling now in Florida and other southern areas, both humans and wildlife are apt to see familiar faces and feathered friends.
Pine siskins are rather irregular residents in Maine, and during every month of the year, small flocks wander about as if there is no such thing as a breeding season or a time to settle down in one spot. These little birds are very active; flocks will land in a tree, spring up, swirl about and then return to the same place. In winter, they hunt for food and find their way in the company of goldfinches to a feeding station where millet seeds and cracked butternuts are favored foods. Their call has been described as similar to the sound of steam escaping from a radiator.
Tree sparrows are not bothered by Maine’s winter weather either. This sparrow sports a reddish cap and a single, round, black breast spot. In January, tree sparrows forage through weed fields, clinging to grass stalks in order to snatch seeds, or they visit a feeder where they can find seeds that have fallen in the snow. If you should come upon a few of these birds resting in some sheltered spot in the warm winter sunshine, take time to listen to them, for they often keep up a steady ice-fine twittering that has been described as sounding like dripping icicles.
If you travel offshore these cold days, you are apt to see razor-billed auks. These black and white sea birds are quite handsome. Auks come into our waters in the winter but rarely near shore. They are stocky and robust birds with thick necks and long tails. The bill of the auk is thick, and it has white markings on it. I was fortunate in June of this past year to visit the breeding colonies of the razor-billed auks in Newfoundland and saw thousands of them standing on the side of their nesting cliffs and moving about in the air. They look as if they are all dressed in tuxedos and ready for a fancy ball. Standing on the sparrow shelves on the towering cliffs, they resemble small penguins.
In their breeding colonies on the side of a seaside cliff, these auks lay single eggs on the bare rock. They are not completely round, so they will not roll off. It was an awesome sight to see so many of these birds standing on the narrow ledges of the cliff and to listen to them ‘talking’ to each other. In the winter, you will find them in the ice-free inshore waters from the east coast of Newfoundland as far south as New Jersey. Chances of seeing one are best from a fishing boat or perhaps from a location such as Schoodic Peninsula. If you are unfamiliar with this bird, look it up in your bird book.
To get to the bird colony in Newfoundland where I saw them in June, we had to walk about two miles across a sheep pasture at the top of a seaside cliff. At the edge of the cliff, we sat on big rocks and could peer down into the colony opposite us on another cliff. Along with the auks were murres, puffins, gannets and guillemots. It was an exciting, noisy scene but not to be missed in this lifetime!
Here and there on the ground, I found the feathers of petrels that had been eaten by gulls and occasionally a broken egg shell of a gannet or other sea bird. Life is anything but serene in a nesting colony. Predators seek the eggs and/or newly hatched birds constantly. Crows, ravens, eagles and gulls were constantly looking for an opportunity to grab a meal.
A report of a red-headed woodpecker sent to me recently turned out to be a red-bellied woodpecker in Otter Creek. Remember that the red-headed woodpecker actually wears a red hood. The red-bellied male has a red crown. The female has red only on the nape. I personally have trouble really understanding how the red-bellied woodpecker got its name.
If you have questions or observations, please send them to me at [email protected] or call 244-3742.