When I woke up one day recently at first light, my eyes were immediately drawn to some movement at the top of a gray birch outside my bedroom window. At first, the creature appeared blobbish, but slowly it took the form of a ruffed grouse. They have a chicken-like shape and do not move particularly gracefully in the tree tops, where branches are apt to be smaller and bend easily with their weight. The bird seemed to know what it was doing and fed eagerly. At one point, it just gracefully let itself drop to a lower branch and continued feeding as it walked along from limb to limb. These birds spend a good deal of their time in trees. The ruffed grouse is a hardy bird and can live well throughout a Maine winter.
The ruffed grouse is famous for its drumming, which is either a challenge to other males or an invitation to receptive females. They have been known to drum every month of the year, day or night, but intense drumming is done in early spring during late March and April. The act is actually performed on a well-chosen, favorite log, averaging about 20 inches wide and usually not less than 10 feet long. While drumming, the bird stands crosswise on the log, braces himself on his tail and brings the wings forward and upward with quick strokes. He starts slowly at first, and then increases in speed until the beats roll on and finally ends in a rapid whirr. Drummers should envy his abilities! The source of the sound is often deceiving, for it can be made a quarter of a mile away and sound as if only a hundred yards off. These birds are frequently encountered here on Mount Desert Island. Seeing the grouse in the gray dawn light was a nice way to start the day for me.
Our weather has not been in typical winter style yet, and a few migrants have failed to leave the area for warmer climes. A friend this morning told me of a female oriole still lingering at her feeder. Both the orchard and the northern oriole come to us during the nesting season when it warms up in the spring. The orchard oriole is sparingly seen in May and August, and the northern (formerly Baltimore) oriole starts to arrive in small numbers at the end of April and a little ways into May. A number are seen during the summer until September, when many head for the south again where they spend the winter months. If an early snowstorm catches them still in the north, they are not happy. Offer fruit to any individual late migrant to help the bird until it leaves. I was in Trinidad one fall when the northern migrants started to arrive there for the winter. What a sight that was! They seemed to be celebrating their arrival with great enthusiasm. I loved it.
The saddest sight I saw one winter here on this island was a great blue heron in the marsh trying to survive in a blustery ice storm. It looked miserable, and its chances of survival were slim.
We have several woodpeckers as regular residents here on MDI, and they include the downy and hairy woodpeckers. These two birds are quite similar except for size. The downy is the smallest. The largest woodpecker living here year-round is the pileated woodpecker. It cannot be mistaken for any other bird, with that flaming red crest and its crow-sized body. They are quite numerous all over the island.
In the winter, red-bellied woodpeckers almost always show up at various feeders. Flickers join us for the summer months and busily nest here. Just before they leave the areas in the fall, you see them searching for ants at the edge of the roads. A rare woodpecker visitor is quite possible in the winter, however, and that is the black-backed woodpecker. Not only is it rare, but it is elusive. When feeding, these birds cling to dead and dying spruce trees where they very carefully flake away the scales of bark in their search for the larvae of wood-boring beetles. The bird strikes the tree with a direct blow, then turning its head from side to side, it strikes its beak slantingly into and under the bark to make it flake off. These foraging sites tend to be more commonly in dead trees.
A good place to look for them is where you see dense, low undergrowth, and around fallen, rotting logs. This woodpecker normally breeds in the dense woods of Canada and only migrates here in the winter. They don’t scare easily, and if you’re lucky enough to come upon one, you’ll be able to get a close looks and watch it work. One place I have more often found them is in the spruce woods of the park along the road leading to the Bass Harbor Lighthouse.
Watch for redpolls now; they seem to come with the snowflakes and stay through until the first part of April. They are about the size of a chipping sparrow, darkly streaked, grayish brown and have white bars. The breast and rump are pink, and the adult male has a red cap and blackish chin. Do look this one up. Redpolls do a lot of talking to each other, and when traveling in a large flock, the sound they make is very pleasant. They have an interesting way of flying together when something startles them when they’re on the ground. As if they are one bird, the whole flock flies into the air, wheels around and, when ready, settles down to almost the very same spot from which they took off. This is nice to watch.
When they are here in the winter, redpolls spend most of their days searching for food and eating. At darkness, they retire to a thicket. Their food is mostly seeds of birches, alders and grasses. At a feeder, they regularly take sunflower seeds, millet, hemp, hayseed and rolled oats.