Loon alarms and Robins arriving

On the wing by Margo Hearne: In a mild winter like this robins don’t have to leave and if there’s food around they’ll stay around.

  • Feb. 23, 2016 5:00 p.m.

“I’ve seen a robin,” someone said last week. “Are they back yet? It seems early.” Then we saw one out in the meadow looking very bright and new. It is early for migrants to start coming through; they usually show up in droves in the third week of February but early migrants are definitely a possibility. There have also been a few around the island all winter. In a mild winter like this they don’t have to leave and if there’s food around (they like red berries) they’ll stay around. Two hurtled into the shelter of the big, lovely hawthorne uptown; they can hide in there and feed away quietly. Three also flew out of the cotoneaster bush in the garden, they eat those red berries but they haven’t much food value. The berries are mealy and hard. Not until April/May do the berries start to produce any food value. Any old port in a storm, I guess.

The cranberries in the back muskeg are gone, they flavour-up after a bit of frost and get eaten very quickly by geese, probably raccoons and other hungry critters. So what’s a bird to do?

Sanderlings, those small white shorebirds, skitter along the beach. It’s high tide and a screaming south-easter lifts spume from the water offshore. They say that when water lifts it’s blowing sixty. Time to seek shelter. The tiny sanderlings hunker in the lee of the dune and drift logs. Blinding sand blows about but they are hardy little things and rush back to the shoreline when the gusts die down. There’s food there and they need it. Gulls too, rising and falling along the shoreline as the tide drops whatever is broken loose from the reef offshore. The old, tired mollusks and weeds that survived the winter wash ashore and make way for new growth as the days get longer.

It was a Long-tailed Duck week. They are diving ducks and males have a long tail. Four, that we know of, landed on the highway and had to be rescued. Friends wrapped one in a jacket, picked it up gently and delivered it to the house. After a few quiet hours in a cardboard box the bird started to bang about. It had it with the darkness and quiet and wanted to be out and swimming in the spacious sea. Enough with the cramped quarters already! We took it down to the water’s edge and watched it swim away, full of life and freedom. Then a loon called an alarm. Two nearby Bufflehead ducks took off and all the other diving ducks dove, including our released bird, just as an eagle swooped in. It had seen the Long-tail swim from shore and expected an easy meal. Not so. The duck dove deep and long and the eagle went back to its lookout. The loon had saved the day. Birds do listen to each other. The released bird was so intent on cleaning itself up from confinement that it probably hadn’t noticed the raptor. A lesson learned. We learned that it’s better to release a diving duck where it has room to dive and it learned to listen to loons, although it probably knew that already. Its pays to pay attention.

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