Power outages, however long they may be, slippery walking conditions, snow-covered ground and very cold temperatures all let us know we are in a Maine winter. These conditions rule our lives and the lives of all creatures in the natural world for awhile, but as we all know, life goes on, and we adapt the best we can. Some humans and some other forms of wildlife revel in the snow and ice.
Getting food is very important for all creatures in order to survive. Feathered residents and visitors to the islands keep feeders especially busy in December. Redpolls arrive and stay through the first part of April. They come with the snowflakes and leave when spring approaches. These birds are about the size of chipping sparrows, are darkly streaked, grayish brown and have white wing bars. The breast and rump are pink, and the adult has a red cap and a black chin. You’ll notice them when they arrive. These colorful wanderers drift into the Northeast every winter in considerable numbers and are lovely to see. From a distance, you could easily mistake them for goldfinches until they get close enough for you to see the pink breast and red cap of the male redpoll. Redpolls often flock with goldfinches and pine siskins.
In the winter, they spend the short days searching for food and eating. At darkness, they retire to a thicket of evergreens to sleep. Their food consists mostly of the seeds of birches, alders and grasses. At your feeder, offer them sunflower seeds, millet, hemp, hayseed and rolled oats.
If you notice a new or different bird at your feeder, make note of the kind of bill the bird has. Grosbeaks, for instance, have thick, large bills rounded in outline. Finches, sparrows and buntings have bills much like that of a canary. A crossbill‘s bill is like none other, with its unusual crossed mandibles. Noting these facts makes identification so much easier.
Also note how the bird searched for food. Did it look for insects and grubs beneath the bark? Such birds usually have tweezer-like bills in order to grab tiny pieces of food. Owls and hawks have hooked bills for ripping apart their food. Birds flying through the air catching insects have big mouths and small bills. Noting these different characteristics will help you identify a new bird very well. It’s also good to snap a photo if you can. Even a poor photo is helpful sometimes.
Wherever I have traveled in the world, I’ve been able to figure out a new bird or at least the type of bird I was seeing for the first time by these methods. A memorable moment for me in Greece happened when I saw a nuthatch around the walls of some ancient temple. The bird was going in and out of a nest. There was no doubt that it was some sort of nuthatch, a new one on my “life list.” In South America, an oriole-type bird attracted my attention, and I was able to key it down using these helpful hints. Kingfishers, of course, are easy. Wherever you are in the world, if you see a small or large kingfisher, you know to which family it belongs even if you don’t recognize that particular kingfisher. Here on Mount Desert Island, we only see the belted kingfisher. Tropical kingfishers may be very large or small and different colors, but their shapes and habits loudly say, “I am a kingfisher.”
Where you see the new bird should be noted as well, and note what it was doing. Be a good detective and gather lots of clues to help with identification. I’m always glad to help if I can.
Mallards display their courtship antics in November and December, so watch them if you get a chance. When their favorite ponds freeze, you’ll find them in local harbors. You can even do your bird watching from the comfort of your car if you have good binoculars with you. The courtship ritual is often done after they have fed well. It’s fascinating to watch and sometimes very funny.
One chilly day, I passed several mourning doves drinking and bathing in some melted waters next to the road. In spite of the snow and cold temperatures, the birds were splashing and preening. There’s nothing like a good bath. During our winter, mourning doves gather in large flocks and roost together. If the winter snows are not too crusty, they will winter well, for they feed on grass and weed seeds and any berries they can find. In periods of freezing snow and when an icy covering encases seeds and everything else out of doors, they have great difficulty in finding food, except at a feeder. Their feet are not strong enough to scratch through crusted snow. Some mourning doves do migrate, but others stay here all year.
In the air, mourning doves are quite special to watch, for they bend their wings back after each wing stroke, and their long, pointed tails stream elegantly behind them. If you are close enough to hear them take off, their wings make a whistling sound you can hear easily. The call of the mourning dove is a plaintive “coo-coo coo coo” rising and falling in pitch and repeated many times. You probably won’t hear them call until spring. It is then they pair off and do their cooing.
You commonly see larger doves or pigeons at local docks. Actually, these larger doves are not native to America but were brought by the European settlers. They have adapted well. The tall buildings of a city are similar to the cliffs on which they prefer to live. If you live near a dock or the water where they hang about, you may have them coming to your feeder in large numbers. My suggestion to this situation, if you don’t want them coming, is to stop feeding for a week or so in hopes of discouraging them so they will go find food elsewhere.