Winter songbirds and the cross-peninsula otter expressway

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Golden-crowned kinglet

A participant on a recent tracking outing mentioned how in winter Maine forests can be quiet as far as songbirds are concerned. “Huh,” was my creative reply. On the one hand, birds aren’t really singing these days and many species that nest in local woods headed for warmer climes months ago. But during the calm between storms or wind bursts, overwintering songbirds do communicate with each other and add a much appreciated chatter to the woods. So I think I would go with “quieter” as opposed to “quiet.”

Folks with feeders know that songbirds like chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, cardinals, jays, crows and juncos (among others) will visit all winter as long as the feed keeps getting replaced. These same species can be found in the woods well away from any feeding stations where they are joined by songbirds that seldom go to humans for grub. Golden-crowned Kinglets, all 4.5 inches of them, spend the winter living off of insects they find between conifer needles and under bark. Shivering to generate heat is a part of their winter survival strategy, and I observed two different individuals shivering hard while looking for food during a significant freeze earlier this winter. Joining the kinglets on our peninsula this winter has also been a small number of Brown Creepers, a songbird that hunts for insects in nooks and crannies in tree bark. On sunny days I’ve seen small flocks of Cedar Waxwings in flight as well as larger flocks of overwintering American Robins. What a winter for robins and juncos!

On most trips to a nearby decaying deer (I spend way too much time with that deer), I have been hearing and seeing a pair of finch species known as crossbills. Earlier in the winter small flocks of up to five White-winged Crossbills came through searching for bounties of spruce cones, but now it appears that Red Crossbill is the species that may hang around for a bit. Both species of crossbills have upper and lower bills (or beaks or mandibles) that don’t line up when their bill is closed. This is an adaption to access seeds in conifer cones. Crossbills will stick their bills between scales of a cone and then close (or cross) their bills which in turn pries the scales apart. The crossbills then use their sticky tongues to extract seeds that the cone holds. Another adaptation crossbills have is a pocket-like structure midway down their throats called an “esophageal diverticulum.” This pouch is used to store seeds which then can be digested during severe weather episodes allowing the crossbills to feed without “going outside” in a sense. Crossbills are songbirds built for Maine winters!

Not necessarily known for their harmonic ditties, “Corvids” (family Corvidae) such as ravens, crows and Blue Jays are a family that (somewhat surprisingly) also falls into the category of “songbirds.” In other words, they have a “syrinx” to make vocalizations as all songbirds have. Corvids are known for their “mobbing” behavior where they gang up on any predator, often owls, that they come across. Twice recently Blue Jays have drawn my attention to Northern Goshawks that hunt songbirds! Good use of your syrinx, Jays!

A belly slide on the otter expressway

As if that wasn’t enough, imagine this: You are an otter and you just fished (under the ice obviously) your way up the entire length of the marsh. Are you going to turn around and go all the way back down through the marsh to Ripley Creek in order to get to your next fishing ground? Probably not. Instead you might think about taking a short cut through the woods to your next fishing hole. The pair of otters that frequent the Tenants Harbor marsh, Lefty and Poncho, routinely follow a half mile, meandering trail between the marsh and Seavey Cove. This trail is used year round, but is most easily observed in the snow and might be thought of as an energy-efficient route between fishing hot spots.

A third otter, presumed to be a large male who we call “Larry,” also uses that trail on a regular basis, but Larry is not satisfied with only visiting the marsh and Seavey Cove. Larry also spends time fishing in the St. George River (who can blame him) and follows a mile-long meandering trail that runs from the marsh, behind (and in) the Ponderosa and then to salt water southwest of Hawthorn Point. This route goes over a high point between the marsh and the ponderosa, and with the right snow conditions Larry was able to belly slide all the way down the 1,200-foot incline! Now that is the way to travel!

From following Larry’s tracks I could see that there was one night where he made his way from Seavey Cove, fished the upper reaches of the marsh and then headed over to the St. George. He completed the entire 1.5-mile “cross-peninsula otter expressway” in one effort, belly sliding as much as possible. Probably not the only otter expressway on the peninsula, just the one I live closest to.

Hope you are enjoying winter! We’ll see you out there!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *