Nature: Island pine cones

We are now in a new month. Frigid winds and swirling snows may still keep many of us indoors. Birds and mammals still abroad in fields and forests battle the elements to stay alive but thoughts of warmer days to come and seed catalogues are being read and garden plans are being made mentally and on paper.

Friends of mine out walking on the weekend along the Ocean Drive noticed the interesting conifers — pine trees growing there. These trees are well known for their distinctive pine cones. My friend sent me a nice photo of a Jack pine cone. This is the hardest one to find in the park but certain areas along the Ocean Drive can be good places to look for it. The cones grow in pairs and sit upright on the branch. They are very hard and curved when closed and they may be closed for many years. All pines have small undeveloped cones the first year and then grow to their full size.

Here on Mount Desert Island we have six conifers (trees bearing cones). They are often called evergreens for they are green all year (with one exception). The tamaracks so commonly seen all year all over the island drop their needles in the fall.

The cones we can easily see here on the Island are made up of lots of scales and inside every scale are two naked seeds. Cones protect the seeds until it is dry enough for the seeds to fly. Spruce trees growing here have sharp square needles, pines have needles that grow in bunches. When I was quite young and learning about such things it was always helpful for me to remember that white pines have five needles (five letters — five needles). The white pine is Maine’s state tree and it has the largest cones of all New England pines. I love watching the landscape as we drive north especially in the fall for the contrast between the evergreens and deciduous or leaf bearing trees changing color in the fall is spectacular. The farther north one goes the fewer leaf bearing trees you see and in Labrador and farther north eventually there are no trees. The word stark takes on real meaning.

I recommend a small book, that I think is still available locally, called “Discovering Acadia — a guide for Young Naturalists” by Margaret Scheid. It’s the best for learning how to identify local trees.

Some good bird watching has been going on this week at local feeders. One person told me of spending several hours one day watching a colorful gathering of pairs of cardinals, blue jays, hairy and downy woodpeckers. When you picture these birds right outside your windows moving about and feeding it is definitely a special and colorful scene for Maine.

Birds in the tropics are exotic and sometimes unbelievable. Seeing a toucan up close outside your window or an assortment of various hummingbirds seen in the tropics seems unreal. I shall never forget seeing a tree at twilight filled with red birds as scarlet ibis came in to sleep. It hardly seemed real. Watching a snowy owl sitting on Cadillac or on Back Beach in Tremont is quite special as well. Each area at different seasons has special birds to see and the regulars are no less interesting. The first bird I learned to love as a child was a chickadee. There are lots of wildlife surprises to experience here on MDI.

Right now, you should be looking for purple sandpipers along the shores of MDI. Look for this plump sandpiper at the rocky shores especially at the edge of a receding tide. They like to feed on the exposed rockweed found there. They are looking for small crustaceans, periwinkles, mussels, sea worms and even those iron clad barnacles. Purple sandpipers are dark, tame and portly birds standing on short yellow legs. They feed where the surge of the waves lifts the floating sea wrack in its foam and where the water covers the rocks and weeds. If a particularly menacing wave threatens them, they lift off the rock and land again nearby, or they lift off the water and then fly around in a big circle and land again.

Nothing that winter offers bothers these shore birds. They are at home in the fog and in cold winter winds. Their breeding grounds are on the shores of the upper North Atlantic and the adjacent Arctic waters but in the winter, they move south and are seen on our local stone jetties and wave washed rocks.

On warmer days and nights, you may get to see raccoons and skunks more often. Raccoons have built up a reserve of fat from the fall and they have intermittent periods of activity in the winter. If you get the urge to offer raccoons some food, resist it, for raccoons can get very “pushy” with food offerings and you no doubt will be very sorry you offered them food.

Send any questions, photos 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.
Ruth Grierson

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