A lone eagle was sitting on the lower branches of a tree. There is nothing unusual about that on this island where eagles live and breed. All the same, my friend kept watching and then discovered as the bird finally flew off that it had a fat, gray squirrel in its talons. Eagles are scavengers and will eat a wide variety of food, including a gray squirrel in your yard. Sometimes as you walk the local beaches, you’ll find them feasting on a dead seal, some fish washed in or the carcass of a dead duck washed up with the tides. A dead deer along the road or in a field really brings in the scavengers. Friends in Trenton had a dead deer in their field, and both birds and mammals came to the feast: crows, ravens, eagles, blue jays and bobcat. Others not seen probably joined in as well. The death of one creature provides life for many others.
As I woke up one morning recently, I looked out of the bedroom window just in time to watch two deer, a mother and young one grazing in my field. They seemed to be nibbling on something small close to the ground. That wonderful white tail of theirs was tucked neatly in the down position, for they felt comfortable. With any hint of danger, it is up like a flag signaling “Watch out! Be alert!”
Coming home one evening recently through Manset, I had to stop and wait while a small herd of nine deer sauntered across the road. I was just about to move when a young one realized it was being left alone and scampered across to catch up. If you see one deer on the road, expect that more are nearby and ready to cross in front of you.
March is upon us, and we can expect ups and downs in the temperatures — spring one day, winter the next — and a still some snow. The sun is climbing higher, and the days are growing appreciably longer. Winter very slowly gives way to spring as many of us avidly watch for the signs. Sap begins to run this month, pussy willows bloom and the dark bills of starlings show a bit of yellow.
It is the time also to listen and watch for woodcocks to return and start their strange ritual of “sky dancing.” This behavior is part of their courtship routine and fun to watch. A woodcock, to begin with, is a comical looking bird. It is robin-sized with a plump body, its eyes are placed high on its head, and its bill is very long. Not only is it long, it also has unique possibilities built in. The long bill is used by the bird to probe deeply into the soft, wet earth as it searches for worms. If it senses a worm, it has the ability to open the tip of the bill underneath the mud, secure it there and draw it out to eat. The bill is a great tool. Worms tend to bury themselves deeply into the mud, so this bill is just what the bird needs. Since the eyes of a woodcock are placed high on its head, they do not get into the mud, another nice adaptation. Woodcocks spend most of their time on the ground, so they are very vulnerable to free roaming dogs and cats.
Look for their “dancing grounds” in open fields at the edges of the woods, in overgrown pastures and abandoned fields. Listen for the “be-seeping” sound and then wait until the bird flies up from the field. You should be able to hear its musical twittering high in the sky overhead, and then the bird comes flying back down to where it took off. You usually can creep up closer to its dancing ground while the bird is in the air. Once it lands, freeze in position and listen. You may be able to see the woodcock’s funny dance if the bird is nearby. A flashlight turned on doesn’t bother them. The dance continues all night.
Wintering purple finches begin singing this month. These birds are the most melodious of all our American finches. From the top of a tree, a male finch pours out his ecstatic warble in an attempt to impress female. If his chosen mate is nearby, he will launch himself into the air, still singing, and flutter about with quivering wings. This raspberry-colored finch is by nature a forest bird, but it has adapted readily to civilization and comes to feeders and dooryards. Coniferous trees and a good supply of sunflower seeds will attract them year-round.
Males in the winter start showing a little red in their plumage in March, and when the male is in his full breeding plumage, he is bright red, and he uses his color to impress the female. Females are brown, heavily striped birds with a broad whitish line over the eye. They look quite like sparrows, but their stout bill is a typical large finch-like bill. Although pine grosbeaks are similarly colored, the grosbeak is bigger and nearly the size of a robin.
Now is an excellent time to take to the paths and trails. Even a snowy field can be fun if you search for tracks left by small mammals and birds. I love it when I come upon turkey tracks. Wild turkeys have big feet, but their track is so distinctive you can’t mistake it for another.
Enjoy our island and the signs of spring as we head for warmer weather and a greener landscape.