Keeping warm is a problem in the winter for humans and wildlife. A friend this week asked me how deer keep warm in the winter. There are various ways for the deer to stay warm. First of all, their winter coat is made of hollow hairs that trap air. This provides an insulated layer that will keep them warm even to degrees as low as -30. If you have ever worn any garment made from deer skin, you know how warm it can be. Deer skin moccasins are very warm and comfortable. In the days we have experienced this month, deerskin gloves and mittens were just right for keeping hands warm.
Besides wearing a warm coat, deer gather together in “yards” composed of thick evergreens. These yards are often are on south-facing slopes. Deer live from the Arctic Circle in Canada all the way to 18 degrees south of the equator in Peru, and Bolivia. The name “white-tailed deer” comes from the long, white hairs on the animal’s tail. The tail is used to signal to other deer.
Tide pools often get ignored in the winter by winter walkers. It’s harder to negotiate the wet, slippery shore, but life goes on. Creatures that can move leave the harsh zone right where the waves crash and ice moves about. Attached animals like sponges, bryozoans, mussels and barnacles have to tough it out. Ice is a big problem, for as it moves, it grinds and scrapes all life on the rocks like a miniature glacier.
A friend of mine lives on a pond and has many interesting observations year-round. Recently he was standing on the shore of his pond watching four otters not far away on the ice. All of a sudden, one dashed his way and just a few feet away from him dove in and caught a 12-inch pickerel. Right there in front of him, the otter bit it in two and swallowed that, then bit it again until the tail was the last part eaten. It was like being present in a “National Geographic” moment. I love it when that happens to me!
Eighteen turkeys wandered by his feeder one day and stopped to eat the seeds on the ground. They also stepped into the lake in water about 3 inches deep for a drink as they ate. It was a nice sight to see. Turkeys are regularly seen all over this island these days, and they are very beautiful birds. The next time you see one up close, really look at the feather colors. The turkey in body shape is not a beautiful bird, but it has exquisite feathers. Often when you see a flock marching along, the word “comical” comes to mind.
A noisy duck heard on the water this month is the beautiful long-tailed duck. This duck has a pied pattern and a long needle pointed tail on the male. Its Latin name, Clangula hyemalis, means noisy winter duck, and the bird lives up to its name by talking and gabbling whenever it gathers or flies about. On a foggy day along the shore, you can hear them talking to each other even if you can’t see them.
These ducks nest on the tundra of subarctic, regions but they winter off Mount Desert Island and as far south as the Carolinas. A favorite place of mine to see them is from the vantage point of the Manset Dock. There I can sometimes watch them swimming underwater.
Long-tailed ducks are medium-sized, chunky sea ducks. Whatever the stage of his plumage, the male’s very long tail identifies him. As he looks for his special food, he sits low on the water with his head erect and his tail either well elevated or lowered for a moment. These handsome ducks fly low over the water in small flocks in irregular formation with many twistings and turnings. Their courtship antics start here, and they are fun to watch.
If the weather warms up this week and we have snow, you should look for snow fleas. The snow here and there will appear to be covered with black pepper, but on close inspection, you’ll see the specks jumping. These creatures are members of the springtail family of insects, and they have the unusual characteristic of being active all winter, especially on warmer days. Generally when the weather gets cold, insect activity slows down or stops. At other times of the year, springtails live under damp leaves, the bark of logs and other moist, dark spots throughout most of the world, including the polar regions.
Some springtails are luminous; some are extraordinary jumpers. Fish eat them when they collect on the surface of water. I have seen birds searching through the flotsam and jetsam at the high-tide line as they hunt for springtails caught in the seaweeds. When we have a cold chilly period after the tropical birds have arrived here, they often survive on these creatures. I well remember one day along the beach at Wonderland when I saw scarlet tanagers, orioles and grosbeaks hungrily feeding in the seaweed.