December has arrived once again, and feathered visitors keep feeders busy. Redpolls should arrive and stay through the first part of April. They come with the snowflakes and leave when spring approaches. This small bird is about the size of a chipping sparrow, is darkly streaked, grayish brown and has white wing bars. The breast and rump are pink! And the adult male has a red cap and a blackish chin. They certainly do attract your attention when they arrive at your feeder. These colorful and chatting little birds drift into the northeast every winter in considerable numbers. You may see them in small groups or in flocks of hundreds. From a distance you could easily mistake them for goldfinches, but as they come closer, the pink breast and red cap of the males distinguish them at once.
Redpolls actually do flock in with goldfinches and pine siskins. These feeding flocks may be startled by a sudden noise or movement and rise into the air, wheel around together and then return to the same spot from which they took off.
In the winter, they spend most of the short days searching for food. When darkness comes, they retire to a thicket of evergreens to sleep. Their food is mostly seeds of birches, alders and grasses. At your feeder, they readily take sunflower seeds, millet, hemp, hayseed and oats. They are nice birds to see.
Red-breasted nuthatches regularly visit feeders now, too, and will be encountered on woodland trails. Their call is not hard to recognize once you learn that nasal sound. Nuthatches frequently travel in the company of chickadees and are out only winter bird that generally climbs down a tree trunk. Brown creeper and woodpeckers usually face upwards. The ability of the nuthatch to go either up or down the tree trunk gives it a slight advantage in finding insects that have been missed by other birds gleaning from the trunks.
Nuthatches also have a fondness for nuts, acorns and pits from cherries. They often break into these nuts by wedging them in a tree crevice and pecking hard at them. At your feeder, they usually take seeds and suet. Males and females have separate roosts within their territories.
It is also possible to see the larger white-breasted nuthatch here, but they are not as plentiful on the island. When you compare the two birds, you can see why the red-breasted nuthatch is sometimes referred to as a ‘dumpy’ little nuthatch. The white-breasted nuthatch is more elegant looking. Both species are seen on Mount Desert Island, and you’ll encounter them in all sorts of places such as rocky islands, cliffs, on fence posts and roofs, flying in the air after insects, searching for food in the long grass and in pine and other kinds of trees. Wherever I have traveled in the world, I have always been able to recognize the local nuthatch. Their actions and shapes betray them.
This is a good month to watch the amusing courtship antics of our local mallards living in any still-open pond on our island or along the coast. Mallards are those familiar ducks living in our harbors with the iridescent green heads. They perform their fascinating courtship display in November and December. Even from the comfort of your car on a cold day, you can watch them. The female is often the aggressor, swimming after the chosen male and repeatedly nodding her head back over her shoulder. The male’s routine includes a good bit of head shaking and sometimes a grunting whistle and scrunching down of the head and neck. Sometimes the displays are done separately, and sometimes the male and female perform together in sort of a ‘mallard ballet’. It can be fun to watch. The displays are best seen on a still day after the ducks have fed.
As winter comes on, we keep adding more layers of clothing, or we put on special garments in order to keep warm. Birds that live here through the winter do much the same thing. Their plumage is duller, less conspicuous, denser and more closely interlocked. Ducks have downy undergrowth which prevents water and cold weather from getting in. Underwear for furry wildlife takes the form of very short hairs that sprout along the roots of the longer, true fur.
All insects are cold blooded, which means that their temperature is generally that of their surroundings, so cold weather does not slow them down. I was surprised after a snowfall one day to find a fly walking on the snow. Very cold wintry weather makes insects adapt in their own special way to survive. For the most part, insects do not migrate north or south as birds do; they migrate up and down. They go from living above ground to living beneath a fallen log, down in a rocky crevice, or deep in a leaf pile. Water insects go into deep water or into the muddy bottom of pond. Still other insects survive the winter as eggs in a neat sac or case specially made by the parents. Some insects escape the cold by crawling between the wooly leaves of the mullein plant.
Keep watch on the open salt water surrounding our island, for this is the time to possibly see murres and razor-billed auks out on the cold waters. Look for them especially after a winter storm. Look carefully at all the gulls you see these winter days for there may be an Iceland gull among them. Many snowy owls are being seen on the local mountains, so we may be in for another ‘snowy owl’ winter. Last year was a banner year!