We are still in the heavy grip of winter, but the natural world moves ahead, for spring is on the way and moves right along. Migrants start to return in spite of the weather, and their journey at times may be perilous. Late migrants in the fall and early ones in the spring may or may not survive the perils.
I’ve had several reports of cardinal sightings at feeders, and these colorful, red birds in a snowy background are outstanding. When our family moved to this island in the 1970s, cardinals did not stay here year-round. Now they are seen regularly throughout the year. Cardinals seem to prefer living in yards and gardens and are not bothered by being close to people. This does give them nesting problems if cats are free roaming.
Listen for their easily recognized whistle that sounds as if someone is whistling for a dog. They sound it out loudly and clearly, and you can easily imitate it and have a conversation with them.
Recently, there was yellow cardinal sighted in Alabama. This is a rare color variation and certainly exciting to see whenever and wherever it occurs.
Through the years, I’ve had reports of white hummingbirds, robins, crows, ravens and wild turkeys. Partially albino birds and mammals are seen here and there, and also those that are leucistic, such as many deer on the island these days. The latter condition comes from a gene variation that is attributed to overpopulation for one reason. The deer are then referred to as “piebald deer.”
Color in wildlife is different in many species as the young animals grow into adulthood. Some birds, like eagles, take several years to reach their adult colors and patterns. Usually females are not as colorful as males since they need to be less conspicuous on the nest. Young birds growing to adulthood sometimes appear in weird colors. The Stokes bird book is very helpful with solving this problem for you. Birds such as bluejays and cedar waxwings stay the same throughout the year for both male and females and young.
The familiar goldfinches we have year-round on this island look very different, though in the winter, both females and males look alike. Keep watch now as the males start to change into their bright yellow and black plumage for the nesting season. Females stay the same more subdued look they have throughout the year.
When identifying a bird, the color is least important usually. Always check the size as compared to a common bird, whether it has a crest or not, the size and length of its bill, where it is feeding and living, color and kind of legs it has, and any unusual actions as it feeds or moves. All of these clues are better than color.
As I drove across island this week, a small flock of turkeys brought me to a stop as they decided which way they were going and how they wanted to navigate a snow pile. They finally decided to walk to the nearest driveway and go the easy way. When seen so closely, you realize what large and colorful birds they are. For some reason, they always make me smile.
In recent years, they have become familiar birds all over Mount Desert Island. As many of you know well, they are frequent visitors to feeding areas you may have. My best sighting of these birds was in the springtime in Georgia. My daughter and I were staying at an old inn that looked out on a big lawn area at the edge of the woods. Our entertainment that morning was watching the antics of a large flock engaged in courtship and mating. The males were strutting about with their tails fanned out beautifully, and the females wandered about seemingly ignoring the attention. It was great entertainment.
Wild turkeys are secretive nesters. The female is very good at hiding her nest, and she takes all the care of the young. Only once have I seen baby turkeys following their mother. These birds are very good at hiding.
This is a very good time to clean any birdhouses you have and to put them up for any nesting birds. Open water is appearing on our lakes and ponds, and soon wood ducks and other water birds will be noticed. Wood ducks like very much small woodland ponds that are off the beaten path.
A friend was out on one of her hikes recently and got to see a seal relaxing on a dock at the edge of the tidal pond near the ocean. Common seals are familiar in our coastal areas but always interesting to see and watch. Their doglike faces are very appealing.
The harbor seal is always with us, and hardy souls out and about on the water and along the wintry shore see them. Residents know special places along our shores where you can almost always find them at the right tide. If you are quiet and don’t seem intimidating or dangerous, they will stay right where they are, and you can enjoy seeing them for a longer time.
Harbor seals tend to feed at the high tide hours, so look for them relaxing at low tide.