Volume IV - No. 2
WINTER BIRDS OF ACADIA
BY MAURICE SULLIVAN,
Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Maine
There is not a sound save the wind in the spruces and pines and firs The pure white new-fallen snow lies a foot deep on the level. It is a dry fluffy snow, each flake a perfect star, as if the heavens had sent down a shower from the Milky Way. The music of the wind in the trees is punctuated occasionally by a dull thud and a swish as some overburdened bough is relieved of its accumulation of snow and springs back to its normal position. Fine tracks of some mouse or larger tracks of the red squirrel are the only evidence that any animal has penetrated the deep spruce forest, dark, silent and deserted.
If Champlain had first landed here in winter we well could understand the reason for calling this place Mount Desert Island. The birds which are so numerous in summer are now far away in warmer regions where the food is more plentiful. It is lonely; the forest needs inhabitants; one's own footfall is muffled. Thoughts of far-off places, of isolated lighthouses, of early pioneers, invade the mind.
Two branches creak faintly, almost unheard. The "Ti, ti, ti, ti" comes nearer, a busy Golden-crowned Kinglet searching everywhere for insect eggs. If two hen's eggs and three slices of bacon suffice me for a meal, do you suppose two moth eggs and three dried spiders satisfy his hunger? I doubt it. He has to maintain a higher temperature than I do, and is far more active. He probably consumes hundreds of insects eggs and dead or numbed specimens every day. And a good service he renders the forests.
From the rear a Chickadee suddenly introduces itself with "Chicka-dee-dee-dee." It is the state bird of Maine and one of the most common winter land birds in Acadia. In all probability these two birds are all that will be seen among the evergreens, although an erratic band of Crossbills, either White-winged or Red, may appear.
The winter birds of Acadia are not dwellers of the deep forest, but frequent the more open hardwood areas, the fields and gardens, and, of course, the unfrozen ocean. There probably are more species of land birds on Mount Desert Island now than there were when the island was in a primeval condition. Before white man came it most certainly lacked the introduced Starling, English Sparrow, Ring-necked Pheasant and Rock Doves which now are present. It has lost certain species, no doubt, but there the record is not so definite. Whether the Passenger Pigeon, Spruce Grouse, Wild Turkey, Golden Eagle, and perhaps other land birds once overwintered in Acadia is unknown, but the presence of the Golden Eagle and Spruce Grouse could be expected.
The white man cleared the forests, planted gardens, carried on agriculture, and permitted more grasses, weeds and hardwoods, such as wild cherry, gray birch, and berried shrubs, such as raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, elderberry and huckleberry, to flourish in burned-over and cleared areas. He planted barberry, sumac, roses, hawthorn, mountain ash, wahoo, and other berried shrubs. These are particularly numerous on the large summer estates. The open fields are thereby made more attractive to Juncos, Song Sparrows, Redpolls and White-throated Sparrows. The feeding stations maintained at many homes are perhaps responsible for some birds overwintering in areas where natural food would not be sufficient otherwise.
Nuthatches (both White-breasted and Red-breasted), Tree Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and sometimes Purple Finches, Goldfinches and Pine Siskins, are entirely or in part dependent on feeding stations. The hardy Ring-necked Pheasant needs artificial feeding because he has not learned to eat birch buds as does his relative, the Ruffed Grouse. The Grouse has another adaptation which the Pheasant lacks. At the approach of cold weather small projections develop on the toes of the Ruffed Grouse. These are his snowshoes and enable him to travel more easily. The Indian may have invented the snowshoe, but he must have received his idea from the Grouse or the Snowshoe Rabbit. Robins, Pine Grosbeaks and Mocking Birds, which sometimes overwinter, must be grateful for the cultivated berry-bearing shrubs and trees.
Among the Woodpeckers a Downy is the only one that can be found regularly. The Hairy can be seen occasionally, but it is a rare experience to find either the Three-toed or the Pileated. It is likely that woodpeckers were more plentiful when the island was better forested and there were more dead and dying trees.
The numbers and even the presence of certain northern birds cannot be predicted. During the winter of 1935-36 Pine Grosbeaks were common, but since then they have been absent or rare until this winter then they appeared in considerable numbers, one flock containing more than 100 birds. When they first were seen in November (1939) they fed on the seeds of the white ash, carefully shelling out the seeds from the rest of the winged fruit. Seeds of the cranberry tree (Viburnum opulus) next were consumed. Each bright red berry contains one seed which was carefully extracted and eaten, the pulp and juice often giving a brilliant color to the snow beneath the bush in which the Grosbeaks had fed. So tame are these visitors from the sparsely settled regions of the north that one of the local bird-banders succeeded in approaching two feeding birds and capturing them with his hands.
Excepting for Bald Eagles, the raptorial birds are poorly represented in winter. A Red-tailed Hawk was shot recently at the Southwest Harbor town dump, where it probably was hunting for rats and mice, but it may have been scavenging. The American Rough-legged Hawk is an occasional visitor but less common than the Goshawk, which is known to nest in the park.
Among the Owls the Snowy is perhaps the most interesting because of its size, habits and coloring [See photograph at right]. A few probably wander down every winter, often keeping to the outer islands and shores. They arrive occasion ally in considerable numbers, and although shy, many are shot because of their conspicuous white feathers and their habit of diurnal hunting in the open areas. The appearance of these Owls in large numbers seems to coincide with a scarcity of lemmings and hares in the far north, although other factors may be involved.
Other Owls include the Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, Saw-whet or Acadian Owl, Richardson's Owl and Hawk Owl. Of these the Barred Owl and Great Horned Owl are reported most often, due possibly to size and to the fact that both are "hoot owls". The only specimen of Richardson's Owl was obtained by some boys hunting a Christmas tree. The confiding Owl was killed with their hatchet.
Other migrants from the north are the Redpolls, nesting in boreal zones as far as the tree limit or beyond, but overwintering in New England and as far south as North Carolina, Tennessee and Missouri. It is most common at Acadia in late winter, being found in open fields, about barns, and in thickets of gray birch. Its tameness and confiding manner make it a favorite with bird lovers. It is fond of visiting feeding stations.
Of the 64 species recorded in six Christmas bird censuses, 25 are water birds. Of these the American Eider is probably the most numerous and the Herring Gull the most widespread. The Eiders may be seen riding the waves and diving for food around ledges such as the one near Otter Cliff. Herring Gulls are scattered all along the shore, but are numerous near the fishing centers in Southwest Harbor and McKinley where they pick up offal from the fish-cleaning operations, thereby performing an indispensable service. So common is the Herring Gull that few persons are aware that it was in danger of extinction about 40 years ago. The traffic in feathers was so lucrative at that time that almost any large bird furnished millinery decorations. Gulls were killed by the thousands. Action by the National Association of Audubon Societies finally stopped the slaughter and Gulls now have increased to such an extent and are so numerous in some localities that control measures, usually the puncturing of eggs, are required. Reduction of natural predators, such as Mink, Eagles, Crows, and possibly angler fish, has permitted the Gull to increase.
The Great Black-backed Gull is boss among the Gulls and for that reason is usually by himself, separated from other Gulls by at least a "safe distance". He is larger and more powerful, but with wings which are blackish on the upper surface. At least one pair is known to exist in this region. Iceland and Glaucous Gulls are to be expected every winter but are not very common. Both are boreal birds nesting in the Artic regions and wintering as far south as the New England states. Careful searches among the many Herring Gulls probably would reveal the presence of these two Gulls.
Of the other Ducks, the American Golden-eye, the Old Squaw and the Black Ducks are usually most numerous. The common name for the Golden-eye is "Whistler", due to the sound of his fast-beating wings. He is typical of the Maine coast in winter as he feeds in salt or fresh water but nests in holes in trees on inland lakes and streams. Whenever you visit the seashore you probably can hear the Old Squaws if they are near, because they are the most garrulous of sea Ducks. Their generic name, Clangula, has the same root as "clangor" and "clang". It is a heavily feathered, hardy bird, said to be able to dive to depths exceeding 150 feet.
For years, "gunning for coots" has been the favorite wild fowl hunting among coastal fishermen, to whom all Scoters are "coots". The Scoters arrive in the autumn before many other species and in times past have been so numerous that barrels of them were salted down for winter use. Down and feathers from Scoters and other sea birds were sold or used at home for beds and pillows. I have such a feather bed, acquired from an old sea captain. Next to pure eider down, nothing could be warmer for our cold winter nights in Acadia.
Among the common Ducks, the Black Duck is esteemed highly for eating. It is a good-sized Duck and has a fine flavor, especially when it has fed in fresh water as it does until ice covers the lakes. It is one of the few Ducks which nests locally, being somewhat common on beaver flowages and other suitable areas.
The little Dovekie is one of the most interesting visitors to our shores, arriving about the middle of November. A "blow" occurs occasionally just when the migration is in full swing and dozens of these Little Auks are forced ashore, or even miles inland, where they are found dead or too exhausted to rise.
The Dovekie is ordinarily found offshore where it gets sufficient food and is well able to withstand all save the fiercest "blows". In March they start their slow migration hack to Greenland, Baffin Island, and similar areas in the Arctic where they are welcomed by the Eskimos. All winter the natives have been in darkness, living on dried fish, blubber, an occasional hare or fox, and perhaps a little food obtained from a trading post. The Dovekies suddenly begin to arrive. All is commotion as the women rush for nets, the boys seek rocks, and the men bring forth guns and bows and arrows. In all probability the first birds killed will be eaten raw, directly from the skin, while the body still is warm and bleeding. The natives are ravenous for fresh meat and the Dovekies supply it in quantity. Eggs are utilized in season and the surplus birds are stored, insides, feathers and all, in a seal skin to be kept for many months and eaten as needed.
The north wind sings down the fireplace and around the corner, a reminder that winter is still with us here at Acadia, despite the bright sunshine outside. It has rained but once in the last six weeks [Up to February 1, Ed.], the thermometer has stood between 10 and 30 degrees above zero most of the time, and winter will be with us until April. Not until late April and early May will the Warblers return in number.
The writer hopes that no one will be disappointed if he has failed to write about a favorite bird. If the reader seeks further information he may consult the accompanying summary. A good book, such as Forbush, Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States, will supply details.
CHRISTMAS BIRD CENSUSES SUMMARY
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