2008-04-12 / Columnists

Nature Notes

Deer and Crossbills Make Interesting Sightings on the Island
By Patricia Martin

Trish Martin is a year-around resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master's degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn. Trish Martin is a year-around resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master's degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn. As I write this column, it's still winter, although according to the calendar, it should be spring. It's still the quiet time of the year here; however, there is a feeling of expectation in the air. It won't be that long before the ice breaks up, the boats start to run, and the busy summer season is upon us. This doesn't mean that nothing interesting happens in the winter; in fact, there have been several natural noteworthy sightings that I want to share with you.

One occurred on the "ides of March," when I was doing my cottage check. I was on the west side of the Island, on Hedgcliff property, riding my snowmobile. As I approached the Cohens' house, I came upon something I had never seen before on the Island: A small white-tailed deer was standing near the house. It looked up as I approached, and then skittered off down the trail. I finished checking the cottage and went on down to Tamarack Cottage, and there it was again. It didn't seem particularly flustered by my presence, but looked for a moment and headed off toward Stonecliffe. It seemed to be well fed, and certainly not injured. Now, I've heard of deer on the Island before, but I had never seen a live one here before. The deer occasionally try to come across the ice from Round Island or Bois Blanc, or from the Upper Peninsula. They probably do this when food is scarce, the deer population is too high in an area, or they're being chased by coyotes. Often a small herd (four or five) will attempt the crossing, and frequently they don't make it. They fall through the ice and can't make it out, or they try to swim and they drown or freeze. Anumber of times I've seen a deer carcass along the shore, or in one case, it was dragged up on the road on the east side of the Island. These dead deer make good eating for coyotes, bald eagles, crows, and other scavengers. It was nice to see a live one, and I hope that it makes the trip back across to the other islands or the mainland before the ice breaks up.

This white-winged crossbill enjoys a handout at the Woodbluff feeder of Marsha and Chuck Kleber. (Photograph by Kendra Kleber) This white-winged crossbill enjoys a handout at the Woodbluff feeder of Marsha and Chuck Kleber. (Photograph by Kendra Kleber) I was made aware of other interesting visitors to Mackinac the first weekend in February. At the Winter Festival, some friends of mine showed me a picture that they had taken on their cell phone of a bird at their feeder. It was a male whitewinged crossbill, and I had never seen one on the Island before, although maybe some of you have. It was later reported to me that two pairs of these birds were hanging out at the feeder, although by mid-March, like many Islanders, they had flown the coop.

Mackinac Island is at the southern tip of the range of white-winged crossbill, and they are rarely seen in large numbers in the United States, except during food shortages and periods of overpopulation. These are true northern birds. The male is bright pink or reddish with a dusky band on the lower back and black wings and tail. Its name comes from two white bars that are on the wings and overlapping tips of the upper and lower mandibles. The females and juveniles are grayish olive in color overall, with dark wings and the white wing bars. Their song is a vigorous musical warbles and chatters, sweet, sweet, sweet, on different pitches and often issued during display fights on hovering wings. Their call is a rapid harsh repetitive series of chif-chif-chif notes and a plaintive peet. These birds are considered sporadic and irregular wanderers during the winter, which may explain their presence on the Island. In the winter, they sometimes will form flocks of 12 to 50 birds, which may include red crossbills, pine siskins, grosbeaks, redpolls, and waxwings.

Crossbills are a type of finch, and their unusual bill helps them in gathering food. Their strong crossed mandibles are inserted into the cones of conifers, particularly spruce, pine, and tamarack. The tips of the mandibles spread or pry the cone scales apart while the bird remove the seed with its tongue. The individual white-winged crossbills are either "right-handed" or "left-handed" in opening the cones, depending on which way the mandible is crossed. Their bills gradually begin to cross over only a couple of weeks after they're fledged. Besides conifer seeds, they also eat buds, grass and other seeds, a few insects, and berries. They can be attracted to feeders, as they enjoy sunflower seeds. Their bill is also useful in climbing trees, and they climb over branches rather like a parrot, using their feet and bill.

White-winged crossbills have an unusual adaptation for living in arctic and sub-arctic regions. Crossbills and redpolls (another northern bird) have developed what is called an esophageal diverticulum, which is a partially bi-lobed pocket situated about midway down the neck, in which seeds are stored. It is used particularly toward nightfall, and during particularly severe weather. This extra food carries them through low-temperature nights, and permits energy to be saved during bad weather by reducing the foraging time, and allows the birds to eat while resting in a sheltered spot.

White-winged crossbills mate in late winter to early spring. They're monogamous, and they build their cup-shaped nests in conifers where a branch comes off the trunk. The nests are composed of twigs, moss, lichens, forbs, and bark. The female lays usually four pale blue or green eggs with brown/ purple dots. The female incubates the eggs, while the male collects seeds and feeds them to her by regurgitation. After the young are hatched, both parents collect food for the young, which is processed in their bodies into a seedy, milky pulp and then regurgitated into the mouths of the young.

One other interesting thing about these birds is that they seem to love salt. Yes, I mean sodium chloride. They like salt licks, and will often land on salted highways, to their detriment. There is a heavy mortality rate among these birds in winter owing to traffic on salted roadways. That is one problem they wouldn't face if they stayed on Mackinac.

The white-winged crossbills seem to have now left the Island, but other birds will soon be winging their way north for the summer, as spring approaches. Most of us Islanders can't wait for that to happen.

See you in the spring.

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