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The Vinalhaven Sightings Report is organized and edited by Kirk Gentalen on behalf of Vinalhaven Land Trust and Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Out and about on Vinalhaven, MCHT steward Kirk Gentalen reports on what he and others have seen in their travels. Contributions of stories and photos are welcome, and can be sent to


Sunday, February 20, 2011


“I’d forgotten how much I love the Owl months”

Highlights – Owls featuring Long-eared Owl, King Eider, Snow Buntings, Great Cormorants, Belted Kingfisher, a coyote update, and much more.

Upcoming Event - next saturday the 26th, MCHT is offering a snowshoe/tracking trek somewhere in the basin. We'll check conditions and come up with a plan. with the hope to be in the Folly Pond area. 10am at the Skoog Park parking lot to carpool. The last one was a blast.

Sightings -  

Snow buntings – A few different locations have reported having Buntings in their neighborhoods – the school, greens island, and dyers island to name a few. Its always a great time to see snow buntings.Thanks to those who mentioned Snow buntings to me recently.

Belted Kingfisher – More than one around? For a while that seemed to be the case, with sightings at more than one location in a day giving you the plural feeling. Anyway, as recently as (2/14) Valentine’s Day a male was seen on the wires at the Basin Bridge. Good to have ‘em around, and if this one makes it another month that will be 2 years in a row with overwintering kingfishers!

Owls – what can I say, we love ‘em and they love the snowhshoe hare and voles out here, thus it all works out. There are at least 7 breeding pairs of Great Horned Owls (GHO) on the Vinalhaven island (and Greens), and so far this winter we’ve heard three of the pairs calling. (2/12) Poor Farm/Pequot confluence – (Three years running as my favorite place to listen for owls on the island) Just after sunset the local Great Horneds turned it on for a 10 minute or so session, joining the Perry Creek and Wharf Quarry Road owls as the GHO pairs heard this season.

The Great Horned is the classic “Hoot” owl, and its call is a five hoot call, where the second note is shorter and there is limited space between the second and third notes. This description probably does no good – if you hear something hooting outside that’s not a mourning dove chances are it’s a great horned owl.   

And while the owls are tuning up at this point of winter, they will be calling through mid-late spring, so start listening and keep listening. neighbors worth learning about.

This just in– From Jim Conlan in the produce section (2/20 – 11:15am)

“I heard your (kg note – these are actually his owls, which he acknowledged later) owls the other night (2/17). It was 9:30 and I was coming out of my shop on the full moon and I could hear 2 owls calling to each other. Their calls didn’t sound exactly the same, one was lower. I listened for 20 minutes or so and the one on my right was gradually moving closer to the other owl.”
            (not necessarily word for word as told to me by Jim Conlan)

Great sighting (sounding?), and wonderful observations. It is noted by Donald Stokes in “Bird Behavior vol. III” that “Female hoots are shorter and higher-pitched than those of the male, even though she is the larger bird”. Good information in that sentence, plus a possible anthropomorphic (might not be the right word) comment there about the size of the bird. When Donald comes across larger people does he assume their voices are lower-pitched? why would you think that about birds? Ever hear an eagle? Dumb questions, I know. And so it goes.

So what is going on with the Great Horneds these day, you ask? Well, a calendar, a little subtraction and scattered notes from a few years back may shed a little light on the scene. A few years back a pair of juvenile GHO associated with a nest we’d been “monitoring” were found to be flying fairly well on a May 7th . They most likely had left the nest before we watched ‘em flying around that day, but to be safe lets say they left the next on May 7th. GHO owlettes leave the nest (fledge) 6-8 weeks after hatching. 6 weeks prior to May 7th (get out your calendars) takes us back on the calendar to March 26th, (which would be the latest those eggs could have hatched), and 8 weeks takes us back to March 12th would be 8 weeks prior to flight – the earliest those eggs could have hatched– follow? The eggs are incubated for 28-30 days, so if we use the March 26th date as the hatching date, we find that the eggs were incubated  starting somewhere around the 26th of February. Using the March 12th date (8 weeks in the nest before flight, or simply fledging) we find that the eggs were incubated starting Feb. 12th. In other words its time for these owls to be on eggs, soon enough I guess!

Both males and females take turns incubating (good fatherly role model!), and when trading places at the nest the pair will vocalize back and forth with each other. This switching of the incubating duties often happens around sunset, but can start up really any time of night.

I often find when hoping to locate and see owls a little bit of work goes a long way. Being outside (seems obvious) at dusk doesn’t seem to be too hard of an effort, and already just by doing this you greatly increase the chances of you experiencing an owl. Putting yourself in a good location also increases your chances of crossing paths with an owl.  There are no bad locations on the island I would say – I did hear Saw-whets twice from Pleasant Street
and have found pellets on the sidewalk in front of Carvers -  but getting out of town often will increase your odds of hearing an owl. Lane's is loaded with 'em! anyway.

Had an interesting encounter with a Long-eared Owl (2/11) up by the confluence of roads mentioned earlier. Listening for Saw-whets (haven’t heard any, but they was at least one on the island recently – see below), I heard a low moaning, at a rate of 1 a minute or so, coming from not to close a distance from me. At first the creator of the sound was identified (by me) as a tree moaning in the wind. Then it became a deer.  In the end it really seemed to have a bit of goose honk in it (I am not very good at describing calls I would say). This went on for a few minutes and I got curious and bolted on the quiet Saw-whet scene and walked maybe a couple of hundred yards looking to see something on the ground only  to find a Long-eared Owl on the top of a snag in the middle of a field. The silhouette was fun to see, and the call matched up with a LEO call somewhere on line, although at a much slower rate of occurance. Folks might remember that this is where Evelyn Wadliegh and I listened for owls a few years back for her science fair project. We heard a LEO that night, and it was the only night I’d ever heard one there. Anyway, I watched it for a few more rounds before it took off. I have returned three times, and I have heard the owl again only on one of the visits, but didn’t get a view of it as it was located deep in the woods. Wouldn’t say it was acting alarmed, putting itself in an extremely vulnerable place especially with Great Horneds nearby. We will continue to monitor.

Meanwhile…..(2/17) while on the coyote trail (more below) across Old Harbor Pond a murder of crows was mobbing something fairly close to the trail, but not close enough to pull us away even for a second. On the return, tired with claves tied in huge knots after 6 hours of sloppin’ thru the snow, I saw the flash of a GHO I spooked from a tree ahead of me. It landed on a bark-beetled tree that was way out in the open for great looks! Fair chance that this one or its mate were the recipients of the mobbing earlier in the outing. This is not an area where I know of a nest, but we’ll be listening   

Ferry Ride – (2/18) 10:30am to rockland – Its been a long while since I had a solo ferry ride across the bay (with 30 of my closest friends of course), and so I decided to do a ultra thorough scan for most of the ride to see what tallies I might come up with. Here’s what the totals were:

30 Purple Sandpipers, 11 Surf Scoter, 20 Black Guillemot, 24 Old-taileds, 22 Common Loons, 2 red-necked grebe, 10 Red-breasted Merganser, 5 Common Goldeneye, 5 Black Scoter, 4 Great Cormorants, many Common Eider, and 1 male King Eider!

Crappy light on this King Eider. Zoom in to catch
characteristic domed forehead and orange and blue patches.

The male King Eider was an unexpected bonus, and the first I’ve seen from the ferry. The King(!) Is a more northerly cousin of our local Common Eiders. Males are easily told from the Commons by the bulbous, orange/blue forehead of the king. King Eiders breed in the Arctic (with a small population on the southern end of Hudson Bay) along freshwater ponds and pools in the rocky tundra. After the breeding season King go to the deep water as they are the 2nd deepest diving duck recorded, with dives of 200 ft known.

Each year a handful are seen in Maine, and this may be the same individual I saw in December in the thorofare.

And keep an eye on those Great Cormorants (the only ones we have around here at the moment). A few really sharp looking individuals flew by the boat, with gleaming white flanks, and a nice frosting to the black of the head.

Coyote update – After a month and a half of zero coyote tracks, trails, or sightings, things picked up this week thanks to an incredible tip

(2/15) – Coyote is seen walking on a very frozen Old Harbor Pond by Jeff Osgood – I do believe this is the first coyote sighting on Vinalhaven made from a back window. It's not that long of a view, but long enough to get a good, clear view.  

(2/16) Kris Osgood is kind enough to share the sighting with me, within a short while the coyote trail is found and it is decided that it will be followed the next morning to give “ample” time in case it turns out to be a long trail.

(2/17) And its a good thing we gave it time….  

Trails coming and going.
John is the one with the yellow sunglasses.

It didn’t take long to see that the coyote came and went from the same area of shoreline, and actually only made a small loop on the ice, possibly hunting voles along the shore. The two trails (coming and going) split soon into the woods, and we ended up backtracking, and thus don’t know where the coyote went off to.

But with backtracking we of course learned a lot about where it had come from. John and I spent over 5 hours tracking this woofer over 2 miles of Vinalhaven’s finest habitats - ponds, quarries and mountains (KG note - Vinalhaven’s  version of mountains) along the eastern side of the Basin.

Saw-whet Owl feathers.
The bird associated with feather is dead.

The trail was “productive” right off the bat. The coyote made a short side excursion to check out the remains of 2 different birds close to Old Harbor Pond. Clumps of Saw-whet owl feathers were scattered over the trail and in a sapling as well about 40 ft from the main trail. There was no blood or carcass here, but lots of feathers and several clumps of what appeared to be crow scat on the snow. Possible the coyote was attracted to the site by feathers in the sapling (they notice stuff like that), or maybe the crows making noise, or maybe by smell. The coyote marked the spot doubly – landing a snowshoe hare pooper and urinating in the midst of it all. It did not look like the coyote got any food out of the excursion.

Keeled sternum

Before heading back to the “main”/original trail the coyote walked thru another set of evidence of a kill in the area. The scene was a pile of feathers on the snow shaded partially by a lower limb of a tree, and the keeled sternum and complete vertebrae of the victim on the snow a few feet off. Underneath the bones there was obvious blood stain in the snow that had melted in a bit. The carcass was not picked clean, but was getting there.


Vertebrae, skull and pelvic region
this bird is dead

The feather pile also included both the upper and lower mandible/beak/bill/pokey things, which were slightly serrated. Speculation went to a female/  first year Hooded Merganser, but questions about the neck length arose. The feather samples and bill have keyed out to be Hooded Merganser. There was predatory bird poop splattered in a few spots (look in the top right corner of photo below, at base of tree).

Feather pile with coyote tracks right thru.

This merganser was brought a long way to be torn up near old harbor pond. What would do such a thing - a Goshawk? The Great Horned Owl being mobbed by crows a few hundred yards away?  And is there any connection to the saw-whet scene just a few hundred feet away? Will we find more? Are these questions rhetorical?

The coyote wasted little time here, as there was little to get from the remains (other than the bones themselves) and he walked thru the area breaking thru the snow in the feather pile. 

Coyote dig in the snow for a cached deer carcass.
Note the claw marks
The trail then took us to 4 different spots where the coyote dug in the snow, and recovered deer buried there. 3 of the caches were pretty separate, while two appeared to be remains from the same deer. This partial answers the question I have asking for over a month now – what is the coyote up to? Apparently he was burying deer in the snow.    

John tugging on a buried deer femur

From tracks and trails over the last month it was clear that the deep snow had altered the deer behavior and movements. Were these deer starving and weakened, already dead, or ones that just couldn’t get away because of the deep snow? Sure, I mean, we’ll never know. What seems obvious to me is that the Coyote has quite a supply of food out there.

Deer head and close up of jaw, dug up from a cache in the deep snow.
note upside down ear pointing to the bottom of the picture