Winter whites useless now

Snowshoe hares aren't so camouflaged in the Mount Desert Island woods this year. PHOTO COURTESY ALBERT HERRING/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Snowshoe hares and ermine aren’t so camouflaged in the Mount Desert Island woods this year, since there has been more rain than snow. PHOTO COURTESY ALBERT HERRING/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

If all the rain we’ve had recently had been snow, we’d still be knee deep in winter! Contrary to last winter’s abundant snowstorms, snowshoe hares and ermine run around now in bare woods and are very conspicuous with their white coats. Normally, their white fur makes them blend into the landscape. Now they stand out, and their predators, such as larger mammals and large birds, can find them easily in the fields and woods of this island.

A friend out for a run on Sunday in Southwest Harbor told me about a great many starfish near the dam at the causeway. She said they were a rosy color. Seastars, or what we commonly call “starfish,” are echinoderms, those star-shaped creatures seen on rocks or beneath the water in tide pools and clinging to the pilings of local wharves. The best time to find them is during low tide when they are hiding in dark nooks and crannies of tide pools and under or alongside rocks and empty shells.

I think that beside their familiar star shape, their ability to regenerate a new arm if necessary is most interesting. The minute the appendage is removed, they immediately start to regenerate a new limb from its stump, provided there is enough left of the body region to which it is attached. This must include the madreporite. The madreporite looks like a small button on the underside of the starfish right in the middle. It might remind you of a small wart placed there, and it is an essential part of starfish anatomy.

Starfish can be different colors. They appear from beige to pink to dark purple. The colorful blood star is a bright red and will really attract your attention. The ones seen by my friend were a rosy pink. They can be seen easily at the edge of the shore in some places. Try looking for them this week on your walks along the shore.

Raccoons are moving about now with the temperatures rising and the weather not so harsh. This is the beginning of the courting season, and the males are searching for mates. Red foxes and coyotes are also courting in the moonlight. Crows and ravens can be seen doing their courtship antics as well. Ravens are early nesters.

March is what I call a capricious month, warm one day and freezing the next. The sun is climbing higher, and days are appreciably longer. The sap runs, pussy willows bloom, and the wintertime dark bills of starlings turn bright yellow. Spring officially comes later this month, and all life is anxious to get on with it.

This is the month to watch for those comical shore birds, woodcocks, as they do their courtship rituals. This dance ritual is commonly called the “woodcock’s sky dance.” The best times to hear and see it is in the wee hours of the morning and again at dusk. This chunky shorebird, with its very long bill, a large head with its eyes perched high and soft brown camouflage coloring, is well worth finding and watching. Listen for its buzzy-like call in any open bit of land at the edge of the woods. The woodcock’s feathers are the color of dead leaves, which makes the bird a bit difficult to see. Listen for the odd sound that it makes and then figure out where it is. The dance starts on the ground where the male is trying to impress a nearby female. He struts around a little, all the while making that nasal buzzy call, and then at his chosen moment, he leaves the ground and flies up quite high. Just at the height he wants to reach, he sings a lovely musical song and then drops almost like a fluttering, falling leaf back to the ground almost at the very spot from which he took off. The dance then starts over again. He does this all night long to impress the female. Usually you can get quite close to the bird and experience nice views of his performance.

I think the most interesting thing about the woodcock is its very long bill. This unique bill is grooved and is an amazing tool. The bill can probe deep into the soft mud where worms might be found, and the tip of the bill can be opened with its flexible tip and enable the bird to seize a worm. Once the worm has been seized, the bird pulls the worm out and eats it. During this whole process, the high-set eyes of the woodcock stay dry and not bothered. The woodcock’s diet consists mostly of worms, although the bird may at other times also eat beetles, grubs and other insects.

Purple sandpipers may still be found along our rocky seashores. Seawall is often a good location to find them or out at the end of Wonderland. This sandpiper is only here in the winter, and it is well described as a “dark and portly sandpiper.” It is always a nice event when you find a small flock feeding at the shore. If a wave disturbs the flock, they rise in the air as one bird, circle about and then go back to where they were before. They appear dark on the rocks. Nothing that winter offers disturbs these shorebirds. They are right at home in the fog and cold winter winds. Their breeding grounds are on the shores of the upper North Atlantic and adjacent Arctic waters, but in the winter, they move south, and we can see them for a few months here at the edge of Mount Desert Island on stone jetties and wave washed rocks.

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

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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