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Nature: They’ve got legs, if you know how to use them 



North winds are blowing and the leaves will soon be gone, but fall is still filled with lovely days in the out of doors. Warm days and nights now prompt springtime behavior in many creatures. A few peepers may even call, and eagles sometimes do courtship antics. A friend saw two bald eagles in the air, one flying upside down beneath the other with large wings spread out, quivering beneath the other bird. 

Immature eiders may seem like some other bird now until they get their adult colors. Young male eiders have a mottled black-and-white appearance. To identify them, keep watch for the long sloping bill and the company they keep. The common eider is in our local waters all year round. Guillemot, too, are seen year-round, but they dramatically change colors. All winter, they change from mostly black to a mottled white and black. The change on these guillemots is dramatic. Whether winter or summer, though, they always have a red throat lining and matching red feet. When you can see his open mouth and red feet at the same time, it is an outstanding sight!  

The feet of some birds can be the outstanding feature. Blue-footed booby feet are a gorgeous bright blue. Snowy egrets have black legs and bright golden, yellow ‘slippers’ on their feet that you can’t miss. The color of the feet and its legs often help greatly in bird identification. One year I was in the tropics and we were out looking for scarlet ibis near the end of a day. We did get to see them flying into their roosting site and settling in for the night. As they landed, it looked as if they were decorating the green tropical foliage for Christmas. There were hundreds of these large red birds sitting in the green tree; an unforgettable sight for me! 

spruce grouse stood in the road one day as I drove on a back road. It actually took a toot of the horn to get it to move off the road. If you should meet one of these birds on a woodland trail, it is not afraid at all and you may have to move over to pass. A hiker friend of mine one time actually had to pick up the bird and move it over to pass. They are absurdly tame at times. The male spruce grouse is quite handsome, and I guess he knows it. Like all chicken-like birds, they ‘scratch’ for a living in our island woods and fields. 

If you get to see one up close, which is usually easy, you will notice a comb of bare red skin above the eye and a chestnut band on the end of the tail. It is exciting to see one up close. Spruce grouse are smaller than the more familiar ruffed grouse or partridge. At this time of year, these grouse are eating wild berries. In the winter, they will eat shoots, foliage and buds of spruce, larch and fir. When available, they consume insects as well as low-growing plants. The young birds subsist on insects and spiders. They are year-round residents of MDI. 

The walk now on the trail between Bubbles Pond and Jordan Pond gives an excellent opportunity to easily find the lovely Christmas fern. This is the first fern I ever learned about from my nature mentor when I was growing up. The name captured my imagination and I loved it immediately. When my naturalist friend pointed out to me that each little frond looked like a Christmas stocking, I loved it. Look for this lovely spreading dark green fern in any shady woods and ravines on the island. 

Rose hips, the fruit of roses, are ripe and colorful this month. Although growing profusely as if it had always belonged here, rosa rugosa is really an introduced Asiatic shrub now found throughout the eastern United States. Wildlife eats the fleshy fruit containing seeds. It is also a delicious and healthy human food for those who know how to prepare it properly. Throughout the winter, the fruit remains on the shrub and provides food for many kinds of wildlife in the cold wintry months when food is harder to find. The thick thickets of rose hips also provide good protective cover for roosting and nesting for both game birds and song birds. 

Watch for returning long-tailed ducks these days. They return now to spend the winter in our local waters. If you walk along the beach at the edge of the water, watch for migrating shorebirds passing through. It’s not always easy to identify these migrants, but wish them well and enjoy the encounter. They are on a long journey and only stopping briefly here to refuel. 

Enjoy the out of doors for all sorts of reasons and stay well. 

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

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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