This Dickens of a winter continues



In spite of all the snow we seem to be getting, Charles Dickens said it well with, “It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold; when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade.” Driving home after dark on Sunday evening in driving snow had not a hint of summer in the weather. In only a few places near my house have I seen soil or pieces of moss.

Wildlife is really having a hard time, and with a tough crust formed on the deep snow, predators like owls, foxes and bobcats have been frequenting bird feeders for chances to catch a visiting squirrel. Bobcats, of course, can climb if they want to, so squirrels have to be quick. Someone told me about seeing a bobcat high in a tree one day as it chased after a grey squirrel. I’d like to see a bobcat up close hunting.

Snowy owls are still being reported having been seen in open areas. I have yet to catch up with one. Redpolls and siskins are coming to feeders along with the usual bird visitors. There are two different redpolls that you might see, but it is the common redpoll that most likely will visit you. These are small, sparrow-type birds with a red forecrowns and black chins. The male common redpoll has brown streaking on its flank and on its pale rump. In the winter, the central part of the male bird’s breast is rosy. The female is streaked with brown and has no rosy color. Seen all by herself, she would be thought to be a nondescript sparrow of some sort.

Sometimes there will be a hoary redpoll in with the common redpolls. The hoary redpolls are much lighter and pretty much whitish over all. Both are seed eaters and do come to feeders. Redpolls are only winter visitors here, for they nest in brushy areas in the tundra.

Siskins come easily to feeders even though they mostly forage on the ground and in the foliage for all sorts of seeds, flower buds and some nectar when available. You quite often see them traveling about with goldfinches. Both redpolls and siskins are what they call an “irruptive species,” meaning that they are seen in large numbers some years and hardly at all in others.

Ordinarily at this time of year, I’m writing about woodcocks doing their “sky-dancing” or courtship antics. Our weather and the resulting deep snow have not made our island very hospitable for “dancing” on the open ground or finding places to get earthworms to eat. I hope woodcocks have delayed their arrival here this year. If you see or hear one, please let me know.

Driving home one evening, my grandson and I saw a nice bushy fox dash across the road and down a driveway. They certainly do need their beautiful thick coats this winter. A young friend of mine said he watched one catch a mouse in the snow one day. Foxes have a keen sense of smell and fine hearing to help them be good hunters.

Many loons are being seen in our coves and harbors. This time of year is especially good for watching them go about their daily lives. If you sit for awhile near the shore where you can see them, they are great fun to watch. With great ease, they dive from a sitting position and often come up with a crab or fish in their beaks. Actually, they often just reach down with their heads underwater and grab a crab. Sometimes there is a squabble with a gull for food. A photographer friend of mine in Bass Harbor sent me a great photo of a loon sitting on the surface and reaching down with its neck and head grabbing a crab. It took a bit of maneuvering to get the wiggling crab down the bird’s throat when the bird pulled its head out of the water, but it was good entertainment for my friend.

Loons look so very different in the winter than they do in the summer. Their seasonal change of plumage is very dramatic. In the winter, this large water bird is mostly gray and white. In the summer, however, the bird is very handsome with it striking plumage of black and white. The male in the summer has a black head and black bill, black-and-white barred neck ring and a black-and-white checkered back. There is no difficulty recognizing a common loon in the summer. In the winter, of course, they live on the salt water, for all the fresh-water ponds freeze. As the ponds and lakes become open, loons look for one to their liking and make a nest. Noise and serious boat activity on lakes and ponds affect their success in nesting.

Loons cannot walk on land, for their legs are placed too far back on their bodies, so they must be able to nest right at the water’s edge and then merely slip off into the water when necessary. When a pond or lake has too many power boats moving about and making waves, the nests become flooded and the eggs perish. This is a very serious problem for these beautiful birds. Even though a number of loon nests are made on the fresh waters of MDI, there has not been a good success rate in recent years because of this and lead poisoning. Any lead from fishing equipment that gets into a loon’s body gives the bird a death sentence.

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

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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