A turkey with leucism PHOTO COURTESY OF BILLIE MITCHELL

White turkey surprises



The weather still stays warm enough even now so that a few flowers are blooming in gardens and the wild places on our island. Many bears are still wide awake and being seen at local feeders where they search for more food to add to their winter weight before taking their long winter naps. If you have bear visitors, take all your feeders down until they hibernate. Don’t encourage them with any food left out or available garbage of any sort. They’ll go to sleep soon.

A friend told me this morning that she still sees a woodcock regularly in her yard. These short, plump sandpipers with very long bills should all be gone by the end of this month. Most have already migrated. For a short while in the winter, they disappear to warmer locations and then reappear in early spring to start their courtship dances. Woodcocks are primarily inland sandpipers and usually found in wet fields, open woodlands.

Woodcock are primarily nocturnal, unlike most shore birds. They prefer wet areas where they can probe deeply with that very long bill of theirs to get worms. They live largely on earthworms. If you have tried to pull an earthworm out of the ground, you know that it can effectively resist. The woodcock has a very special bill just for this problem. The bill is 2.5-3 inches long, and it has developed a hinge half way down the upper mandible by which it can be opened and grasp a worm. Without lifting the bill, it can then suck the worm up. This ability has earned the woodcock the nickname “bog sucker.” In dry spells when worms are scarce, woodcock will eat insects and grubs they find by turning over the leaf litter on the forest floor.

Woodcocks have wonderful, big, bulging eyes set way on top of the head so that if a predator comes along while they are probing, they can still be aware of it and take evasive action. It also keeps the eyes out of the mud while they are probing deep. The eyes remind me of those of a flounder. Watch for these birds as you wander in the wet woods or near a stream. They are fun to see.

An interesting photo of a mostly white wild turkey came to me this week. Friends had taken it on this island and wondered if it was an albino. It was mostly white with lots of black flecking from partially white feathers, but the eyes were not pink like those of a pure albino. This particular turkey has leucism, meaning there is a partial loss of pigmentation. It does alter the appearance noticeably, but the other birds in the flock don’t seem to mind at all. Pure albino creatures have pink eyes.

Many of you have probably seen an example of leucism in many deer on this island. They usually are called piebald deer. It is known to be a genetic variation caused by overpopulation. Anyone on this island knows we have an overpopulation of deer that is very noticeable especially at dusk and after dark. Piebald deer are especially handsome and always a surprise. The whitish turkey was a new bird for me, and I would like to have seen it in person. Keep watch for one at your feeder these days.

I received a nice photograph of an interesting plant this week from a very observant botanist friend. Right on her lawn, she noticed a lovely helleborine orchid that has gone to seed in that spot. It somehow got there on its own but is a nice surprise. I think many people are surprised that we have a few wild orchids in Maine, and some are quite commonly found in many places.

This orchid is a perennial herb in both wet and dry sites. Its common name is broad-leafed helleborine, and it is a nonnative species that can be found here. The flower is quite beautiful but not flashy like the ones we can find in the tropics or see in greenhouses. Go online to see some nice photos of it.

Some of our native orchids are quite exotic looking, such as the pink lady slipper, rose pogonia, calapogon and the arethusa. The nodding ladies tresses is a lovely blossom but not as flamboyant as some of the others.

I have been astounded on many of my travels to discover orchids all over the ground when I was tramping around in cow and sheep fields. The local animals grazed on them and were stepping on them, and I can’t believe how gorgeous they are. Ireland has many orchids, as does Italy, where I saw the bee orchid. And then, of course, in the tropics, they are spectacular and grow in all sorts of interesting places. Even on my most recent trip this year to Newfoundland, I was very pleased one day to find an orchid growing near one of the many lighthouses. I think I was the only one looking at the orchid as well as enjoying the lighthouse. Being interested in nature and all it has to offer when you’re on a trip adds even more pleasure to traveling.

Friends enjoyed watching a brown creeper near a parking lot one day this past week. You never know when you’ll see this tiny brown striped bird busy about its daily search of food. Its manner of feeding is simple, but I guess it works for the bird. The little wispy brown bird with a thin bill flies to the base of a tree trunk and slowly spirals its way up the trunk searching for food that it tweaks out with its tweezers-like bill. When it goes as far up as it wants to, the bird flutters down like a brown leaf to the base of another tree and resumes searching. It does this all day, every day! You may see one flying about and feeding this winter in a group of small birds including chickadees, nuthatches and creepers.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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