Now that the hustle and bustle of Christmas is over it’s time to get back to the things that really matter. Stump-sitting in December may not sound like fun but it sure beats what shoppers were forced to endure since Black Friday. Imagine a day filled with peace, quiet and serenity – where can you find any such thing while doing your Christmas shopping?
Now that we’re able to return to some semblance of normal after two months of hard hunting and the hectic holidays, I find myself anxious to get back to my regular winter routine of feeding the birds and roaming the woods in search of new and interesting tidbits I can pass on to my readers. I was told recently that some folks are simply too busy to spend time wandering the woods so they let me do it for them, which I think is a nice way to think of it. I don’t mind being my neighbors’ outdoor reporter because it gives me even more reason to get out there and see what’s going on.
On an average winter morning I start the day by filling the porch feeders and then replenishing the pile of loose sunflower seeds and cracked corn that I keep outside my office window. The blue jays (about 50 of them) are the first to arrive shortly after sunrise, with chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers showing up shortly afterwards. They may come early or they may come late but at some point during the morning the resident flock of wild turkeys will come trotting across the field to capture the feeding sites. The jays and smaller birds will linger in the tree tops while the turkeys hog the bulk of the grain, but when the larger birds have had their fill I put more seed out so every hungry bird can have its share.
By the time I’ve finished my second cup of coffee the red and gray squirrels will have moved in. By 10 a.m. most of the critters have come and gone although a few remain throughout the day, pecking and poking at whatever is left to them.
This is when I get my winter hiking gear on and head for the woods to see what’s going on. I have a couple of options to consider each day; I can go low into the swamp or go high on the ridge. A third trail leads me through a variety of terrain ranging from swampy to bare hardwood slopes. I try to walk a different route each day so I can get a good, close look at what’s new in that area. By week’s end I’ve walked each major trail at least twice. If I run into deer, fox or coyote tracks I may wander off to see what they are up to, but for the most part I’ll stick to the trails and let the evidence in the snow tell me what’s been going on.
Some creatures leave no evidence of their passing, such as the ravens, eagles and buzzards that soar overhead on sunny winter days. For them I carry binoculars so I can at least watch their movements and get some sense of where they are going and what they are doing. I find it most interesting that though I’ve seen, heard and observed ravens in Maine since the 1960s I have yet to catch one in the act of eating something. I don’t count road kills because that’s a meal provided to them by highway misfortune. I have traversed the Maine woods from top to bottom for decades and have yet to find a place where ravens have been feeding. My bird books offer all sorts of details on the description and “voice” of the very entertaining raven but all that I ever see listed as a food is “carrion.” I am sure that ravens eat a wide variety of foods (omnivorous is another term attributed to ravens) but I have yet to see one eating anything other than hapless roadside mammals. One resource book (Crows and Jays by Steve Madge and Hillary Burns) goes so far as to add baby birds and eggs, rodents, shellfish, insects, seeds, berries and grains to the list of raven delicacies, and I think that such items are likely more important to their survival than simply carrion.
One detail that might surprise a few birders is that a raven is actually (scientifically speaking) a crow. In fact our northern raven is the largest member of the crow family in the Northern Hemisphere. Although these big, black birds are quite shy and prefer to be alone with their own kind they are quite common throughout Maine and the Northeast. In fact, it is a rare day, winter or summer, when I don’t hear or see a raven somewhere in the neighborhood. In fact, during deer season I noticed that ravens were the first (and last) birds I heard over the course of the day. They begin their flight antics and unique calling sequences just before sunrise and repeat those performances after sunset as they head for their tall pines roosting sites for the night. Ravens can be seen and heard daily regardless of the weather, even during the cold, still days of winter, often providing the only wildlife entertainment on such days. In fact, ravens are so common I mostly notice when they are not around, which is a rarity. I make it a point to listen for them at dawn and dusk and on the rare days when I don’t hear them I feel as if something is amiss.
Another large bird that is surprisingly common throughout the East and one that I see or hear every day when I am in the woods is the pileated woodpecker. These large, noisy birds are actually very common in Maine. There are 17 million acres of forestland in the state and much of that wood is rated as “poor quality,” guaranteeing a long and fruitful future for these gigantic woodpeckers. But, you can’t see or hear either of these big birds if you spend the winter huddled up by the wood stove, so get out there and see them for yourself!