A robin in winter ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

Robins may linger



The north wind did blow, and we do have a bit of snow. You may see a robin or two about now and throughout the winter. Some may be those individuals who have lingered on from the summer; others may be Canadian robins coming to this area for an easier winter. They both look like regular robins, but I find the Canadian birds are apt to be a little darker. If you winter in Florida, you see many flocks of robins wintering there. Like some humans, they prefer a warmer winter.

This is a good time to go out tracking wildlife. Even just a tiny dusting of snow will provide tracks for you to see. Red squirrels and gray squirrels are active, and grouse tracks are not too hard to identify. Grouse tracks show plainly the three toes of this bird, and the grouse walks along in pretty much a straight line, placing each foot in front of the other. You can actually see the outline of the foot in each step.

Grouse often bury themselves in the deep snow to keep warm and actually fly right into the snow. When they decide to leave the next day, they deposit two piles of scat and then fly right out of the burrow and into the air. Sometimes they may pause for a moment when emerged and then fly off. I heartily recommend looking up Wildwood Tracking on your computer for more information and some excellent illustrations of this bird that does live here on Mount Desert Island. The ruffed grouse, or partridge, is the more common of the two grouses found here.

A male spruce grouse is quite handsome, for it has a black chin and black breast and red eye combs. I spotted a dead bird on the road one day in Bass Harbor and knew from that flash of red and black on a chicken-type bird that it was a spruce grouse. I took it to the College of the Atlantic, where it was mounted and added to an exhibit in their natural history museum.

These birds feed both on the ground and in the trees, eating grass seeds, insects, wild berries and buds and the needles of conifers. In the winter, they eat exclusively conifers. You often see them feeding in young trees if you make it a point to look for “a partridge in a pear tree.”

The ruffed grouse wears a lovely blend of brown and gray feathers. It has a subdued beauty. When alarmed, it raises a crest. Ruffed grouse feed on insects, berries, buds and seeds. If you are out in the woods in the winter and really paying attention to your surroundings, you’ll find them — or at least where they have been — by their tracks.

Mice and other such small creatures have more freedom in a snowy winter since they can make tunnels and pathways under the snow and escape their predators as the small mammals feed on shoots of grasses and or the bark on trees.

Red squirrels are very active in the snow. These little squirrels are about half the size of the larger gray squirrel, and they are active from dawn until dusk and throughout the year except in very stormy weather. They do spend a lot of time on the ground even though they are primarily arboreal.

Red squirrels defend their winter caches ferociously against other squirrels and against birds, for their lives depend on what they have laid away for the lean months of winter.

The squirrels’ cache is buried in large underground locations that actually may contain a bushel or more of food, including nuts, seeds from coniferous trees and mushrooms. They can even eat the poisonous fly amanita with no ill effects, for their body is apparently able to detoxify or alter the mushroom’s poisonous ingredient.

Deer mice are undaunted by the cold and feed on shoots of grasses now or gnaw on the bark of young trees. If one comes into your house, cereal, cookies, biscuits and dry dog food get added to the menu. This little Walt Disney-type mammal is active throughout the year but mostly at night. Deer mice are strong swimmers if they have to swim, but they do not take to water readily. If they are disturbed, they will stamp their feet and emit high-pitched squeals. I like these little mammals, but I really don’t want them living inside my house.

If you are new to this island, you can expect to find both red-breasted nuthatches and white-breasted nuthatches coming to eat at your feeders. The red-breasted nuthatches regularly visit feeders and are sometimes encountered on a woodland trail. The bird’s very nasal call is not hard to recognize once you learn the sound. This nuthatch is the smaller of the two you see here, and the color of its breast helps you in identification. If they happen to be close together, they are easily identified by size and breast color. White-breasted nuthatches are seen more readily in other areas in lower New England states.

Both nuthatches often travel around in the winter with other small birds, like chickadees, downy and hairy woodpeckers and brown creepers. There are nuthatches of some sort living in many places worldwide, but just by its shape and actions, you know it is a nuthatch.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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