From Small to Large in Late Winter
On a mid-winter walk with my wife Nancy, we followed a favorite trail overlooking a small lake near our home. We perched on a log seat enjoying the warm sun with a hint of March on our faces. It felt like it was time for renewal and a chance to observe some new critters around us. Looking down at my feet, I would have thought the snow to be dirty or that someone had spilled some pepper until some of the “flakes” began moving and jumping!
Snow fleas had emerged from the trunk of the log we sat on and made a sharp contrast with the whiteness of the snow. Snow fleas are not fleas at all but are members of a group of insects called springtails.1 On warm snowy days, they gather in large numbers to feed on microscopic pollen, algae and fungi on the surface of the snow. Gather up a sample of snow and snow fleas and check them out with a magnifying glass or a hand lens. A small microscope will give you a great view of their antics.
Owls are more active and visible as the calendar approaches March. They may already be tending to a nest with eggs or scouring their territory for food or a mate. I am neighbors with a barred owl (Strix varia) which is a large brown and white striped owl with a rounded head and big black eyes.
If I am out and about in the early morning or late afternoon, I can often find the owl staring at me from a perch across a tiny stream which separates me from my human neighbor. Luckily, their tree is not very high and I usually get a very good look at the owl as I stare back. Woodland owls are cavity nesters but I have never seen any babies on the perch so it may be a single bird or have a nest elsewhere.
Another owl usually seen in the Northeast in winter is the snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). Many Native American tribes have legends about the wisdom of owls and their ability to foretell the future. Some tribes believed that the owl calls your name just before your death. The Penobscot nation believes that the snowy owl saved their water source by driving away great shaggy beasts that were drinking it all up. Perhaps this comes from an oral history of their ancestors describing an encounter with mammoths.2
In winter, if food is scarce or the weather severe, snowy owls head south to New England and open areas near the coast such as salt marshes, farmer's fields, and even airports. Any place that reminds them of their wide open breeding grounds seems to work. The birds we see here are mostly immature males who hunt during the day for small birds and rodents from whatever perch is available. The owl, a brilliant white with black spots, is well camouflaged in a snowy field but struggles when there is no snow.
Snowy owls are in serious decline and observers and photographers have been known to drop off a few pet store mice now and again to help out, much like we drop some seeds in our bird feeders in winter. There are a number of reasons why feeding wildlife is not a good idea, and in the case of the snowy owl it starts with the distinction of being on the IUCN (International Union Conservation of Nature) vulnerable to extinction list. Feeding northern owl species can cause them to associate humans and food leaving them vulnerable to people who may harm them. This is especially problematic as they leave their wintering grounds to migrate back north. It is ill-advised unless you are a researcher with the appropriate permits.3
Seals are active all winter along the Gulf of Maine waterways. The harbor seal (Phoca vitulina), which is the most common by far, breed in the summer and give birth in the spring to a single pup. These are the seals with a rounded head and a puppy like appearance. They do not have external ears like sea lions which makes them “true seals”. The pups learn to swim and slither along on their bellies to get in and out of the water right away. Seal numbers have greatly increased since the passage of the Marine Mammal Act in 1972. Some estimates have the population in Maine alone at well over 100,000 animals.
The much larger grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) are far less common and are born in winter. They have a longer, more horselike face and appear far more serious and concerned than the happy-go-lucky harbor seals. In general, during boating season you will see harbor seals closer to shore and grey seals offshore. Major tidal rivers will have both, and both can be found on offshore islands.
Finally, there are the mythic “ice seals” of Atlantic Canada and the Artic which include the harp seal, the hooded seal, the ringed seal and the bearded seal. These seals inhabit the icy domains either on solid ice floes or under the ice using breathing holes to limit their on ice time where a polar bear may await their arrival. These seals and their main predator, the polar bear, will be facing major challenges in a warming world. Each year one or more of these species wander southward into the Gulf of Maine and all of them have been reported at one time or another in the Great Marsh between Essex and Salisbury, MA. As with birds, if you see a seal stranded or seemingly injured, do not approach, harass, or touch it. They are wild animals and the best thing to do is call a fish and wildlife official or the NE Aquarium who can assist with a trained rescue team.4
So, grab your binoculars and get outside! A lot of cool things such as these, and many others, are there for you to observe.
1. Schmitt, Catherine. A Coastal Companion. Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House, Publishers 2008
2. Ibid. p52
3. Mools, Rosemary. “A Guide to Finding Urban Owls”Audubon Newsletter (February22, 2017)
4. Schmitt, Catherine. p11
John Halloran is the Director of Science for GOMI and a member of the GOMI Guide Team. John’s interests focus on the ocean environment where he pursues educational adventure travel, research, and recreation by sail, paddle, and scuba.John is the founder and director of Adventure Learning, Newburyport, MA, which has been involved with educational outreach in area schools and recreational programs for teens and adults since 1980. A long-time educator, John was at the forefront of the experiential education movement in the U.S. for 36 years, he taught natural science in the Newburyport Public Schools.