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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, March 27, 2011


Welcome to the Vinalhaven Sightings Report Blog - March 27th, 2011
Brought to you in part with the support of MCHT and VLT
why are these kis screaming?
photo by amy palmer
Highlights : Fox Sparrows, Fungus (yeah baby!), 3 Merganser day, Woodcocks, Peeper, Owl Pellets featuring a foot, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, singing songbirds singing their songs, reflections.

heart of scat
Big Thanks – We got a bunch of feedback on this here blog thing after the last one was sent out and we thank you all for that. Sounds like folks like the arrangement of photos and videos and that is a good thing I would say. and carol petillo has been receiving more high fives as of late. I appreciate the emails and chats on the street, its fun to get this thing going again.


Upcoming event -   Saturday, April 9th – 10am – noon. Basin Marsh Cleanup.  We’ll gather at skoog and then head over to the Basin Bridge and hit the marshes armed only with big plastic bags. Should be fun, but at the very least will be instantly gratifying to see a big pile of bags full of all the trash we pull out of there. If you are someone who has a truck and is willing to take a few bags of trash to the dump the next day get in touch with me at ( or just show up that morning. Thanks!


keeper of the scat
Outdoor Explorers - "Scat Contest"
(3/15) We'd walked this area just the week before and maybe 4 piles of scat were pointed out. Divide the group into teams, add a reward for the team that spots the most piles of poo, have the contest the day after a winter's worth of frozen crap has thawed out, and suddenly you've got 180 piles of poop spotted. Deja here in the picture on the leftdropped to her knees to protect these two piles from the other teams - and this was while i was giving instructions!

this pile o' poo is claimed by the green team

So the teams had little flags that were placed alongside found piles until the poo was checked off. It was a highly organized endeavor which had as a price for the winning team a set of offical "Outdoor Explorers 2011" pencils, which are pencils onto which i have scribbled "outdoor explorers 2011" often misspelling something along the way. The kids knew what was at stake and were still inspired enough to nearly reach bicentenial level in poop finding. This was  a very fun thing to write about. 

Sightings – quick ones first –
Lane’s Island – (3/17) – Leify and I were sitting on a picnic table, he was eating a snack and I was trying to persuade him not to jump off the top of the table with both hands and a mouth full of pretzels, when the first Spring Peeper of the season (for me) burst out maybe 10 peeps close-by us before coming to his senses and realizing it was way to cold for an amphibian to be so vocal. Seemed early, and it still seems a little chilly for frogs. Not too chilly for that young stud apparently. That was a long first sentence of this paragraph.

Fox Rocks – (3/19) – 3 Fox Sparrows. Foxy.

2 Merganser picture
3 Merganser Day – (3/18) Carver’s Pond – Carver’s Cabin. With a fly-by from a Common Merganser the day was off to a good start and by my afternoon  visit a group of Hoodeds and Red-breasteds had cornered some sort of bait fish under the remaining ice. I biffed by forgetting my memory stick (both for my camera and my personal) so I could not get a video on the internal memory. The photo shows maybe a quarter of the birds and can’t really capture the constant diving and chowing on whatever they nabbed

 31 Reach Road feeders – It’s been a good week for the 31 Reach Road
early visitor
 feeders (that’s 31 as in my address, not 31 feeders – please!), and with the welcome addition of Red-breasted Nuthatches (3/13) our bird numbers at the feeder (2) finally was larger than our mammal numbers (1-rascal the squirrel). The feeders then had a surprise 3rd bird show up yesterday (3/19), a first year male Rose-breasted Grosbeak (man things are getting hot already!). He was apparently hungry, as he just plopped himself down in the feeder and start chuckin or shuckin or crackin or bustin’ sunflower seeds. The book, well, the bible really (Birder’s Handbook – no home should be without it!), says the closest they overwinter is in the mountains of central Mexico, but it seems more likely that this dude stayed further north, possibly at another feeder somewhere in New England. Continues to visit daily at the feeders.

Which brings us to a quick note entitled “feeders and modified (dog) bird behavior controversy”. Catchy title. Anyway, if  you have feeders you’ve probably read and know more about this than I do (for sure), but there is talk of the “right and wrong” seasons to feed birds, and of birds becoming dependent on feeders (addicted to seeds?) and not migrating and global warming, and blah, blah, blah. These are my first feeders (purchased from the friendly folks at “Freeport Wild Bird People center” ask for jeanette (she’s nice) or even sasha (she’s a dog).) and the last thing I want is to make sunflower seed junkies out of the neighborhood chickadees. So what I do, and you can too at home if you have feeders, is to point out the birds to a two year old human (preferably half-clothed) and watch him/her run full speed with anticipation and excitement at the feeders. You’ve never seen chickadees or squirrels move so fast. They do come back, which might be a sign of early dependence, but its hard to imagine getting to the point of addiction when your supply chane is being constantly interrupted. Not to mention that the two year old will hover and wait, he brings entertainment for the lulls inbetween scaring the birds.

K-tell’s Quick hits –
Who’s singing?  Song Sparrows, Brown Creepers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Cardinals, Grackles, Blackbirds, Juncos,

Who’s Drumming? Woodpeckers everywhere. Non-vocal communitication that doesn’t involve fingers (like waving usually does). Both Downies and Hairies are picking out their favorite branches and snags to use this spring for drumming. The loudest hollowed out limb is usually the favorite and will be visited daily by the drumming woodpecker. Leif loves to drum by the way. He'll drum and sing “Playin’ in the band” or “AC/DC Bag”.

This male downy drumming is right at the carrying place & lower mill river preserves parking area (3/19) facing the water. The video shows three rounds of drumming, unfortunately the audio is not so good, looks more like a mute woodpecker drumming. Anyway, good time for woodpeckers out there!

Who’s Displaying? Woodcocks – everywhere. 6 from my yard! There is no place like home. Many folk have reported their neighborhood woodcocks are putting on daily shows, there’s both an am and a pm performance.

The video of exceptionally poor quality was from my car. I had forgotten my better camera and my scope (was I really ready to leave the house?) and was lucky to get this video of the woodcock flying away. This is directly from
Pequot Road
, (3/17).

Who’s Hatching? Great Horned Owlettes of course! Welcome to the island!

Basin marsh

Basin Watches - (3/20) 3 Common Loon, 10 Bufflehead, 15 Red-breasted Merganser, 13 Common Goldeneye, 2 Barrow's Goldeneye, 6 Black Duck, 50 Herring Gull, 2 Surf Scoter, 1 Raccoon, 1 Harbor Seal.

The story with this basin watch (3/20) was the continuing saga of courting ducks, at one time there were 4 different Red-breasted Merganser couples circling in on the kiss of kisses. Common Goldeneye females in submissive posture - yes, things were getting steamy out there

hot barrow's couple - note the female's orange honker
(3/26) 230 Herring Gull, 3 Barrow's Goldeneye, 2 Black Guillemot, 3 Surf Scoter, 6 Eider, 30 Red-breasted Merganser, 24 Bufflehead, 6 Old tails, 20 Common Goldeneye, 8 Common Loon, 9 Black Duck, 5 Harbor Seal.

This day was marked by strong winds, conditions where the basin becomes a protected sanctuary for many birds. High counts across the board and increased diversity (compared to last week) with impressive Herring Gull numbers and somewhat close shot of a pair of Barrow's Goldeneye.

Many of the gulls were wormin' in the shallows

Babble on - Owl pellets - Tom Brown, Jr., legendary and beyond-incredible observer from Jersey, wrote somewhere (probably in his book “the tracker”, since I haven’t read anything else he’s done) that for an observer, finding a skull in the wild is the “ultimate” track or something along those lines. I do believe he was referring to how much there is to learn from a skull and all its adaptations. Skulls are wonderful and chock full of information for sure. Everytime I bang my head I am thankful I have one.

And while I purposely don’t mess with Tom Brown (I think his followers, or “Brownies” as I just made up, can be a little over-protective of their dude) or want to take away from skulls at all (don’t get me wrong, we love skulls), but I have to kindly disagree with him on this one. In my experience a pellet, be it from an owl, a shorebird, shrike or raptor (or others), is truly the ultimate track. Which is good for me cuz I find a hell of a lot more pellets in the woods than skulls. Let’s compare the two on the official “7 hot topics of comparison”, shall we? We shall! Well then -Yahoo! (had to be there).

1) A pellet lets you know where an owl (or whatever) lives or spends time, a skull lets you know where a critter died (or better yet, where a body or decapitated head was dragged to by a scavenger). Alright, that one is pretty even.
2) A skull lets me know what kind of an eater the critter was (carny, herby, omni), where a pellet lets me see and know exactly (pretty much) what a predator is eating. Advantage- pellet.
3) A pellet is fun to crack open and discover whats inside. A skull can be difficult to crack open, and often it is empty inside. Unless there is still some brains left in it, and I hate (strong word) getting brain on my fingers (or in my head). Advantage -pellet.
4) Pellets often come with skulls, where I’ve never found a pellet in a skull. Advantage - pellet.
5) Skulls let you know if the critter had binocular vision, where a pellet often tells you a binocular-visioned killer lurks somewhere nearby. Advantage – pellets.
6) Pellets inspire me to look up, skulls inspire me to…floss maybe? Chew my food? Have my vision more binocularized? Advantage – pellets.
7) With a pellet there is a chance at seeing whatever puked it up, with a skull the chances are slim that you’ll ever see that critter alive (in the traditional sense) again. Advantage – pellets.

So as you can clearly see, when I get to choose the topics and wording there is no comparison between the experience of finding a pellet, and one of finding a skull. Don’t get me wrong – we love finding pellets, skulls, scat, dead critters, whatever. They are all great, but pellets are a groovy kind of love. Anyway.

Pellets(3/13 -3/15) 3 days in a row finding pellets, overall I had 4 days in one week of finding pellets – two were in areas I had not seen pellets before, one had a significant number of pellets (25). Here are the stories.

Sizable vertebrae
mixed in with downy feather shafts
(3/13) Granite Island Lot – Spent the afternoon chainsawing and burning on the lot VLT has for sale out on Granite Island. The piles were somewhat scattered, but in an attempt to minimalize impact (while chainsawing and burning mind you) I decided to re-use an old fire ring even though it meant hauling some of the branches and logs a little bit of a distance. So with the best of intentions I built a sizable fire and did many laps thru the area to haul stuff to the burn. Well, while retrieving some logs I had just cut I noticed a pellet underneath a still standing (thank goodness) tree about 20 feet (generous estimate) from the burn. If you find one pellet its often just takes a trick of the eye before you find more. I was up to 16 pellets under 2 trees within a few minutes, and 3 bits of scat. I spotted a fresh feather tangling about 30 ft up, just as the canopy got too thick to see. The pellets were medium sized I would say, and with a high number (25 total on 3/20) under one or two trees it was easy to jump on the Long-eared Owl winter spot bandwagon. No fresh pellets were found, but the scat, which could have been frozen in snow (but not for too long), and the fresh feather up in the tree were intriguing. How recently had the owl been there?  I walk pretty close to this spot every week, and have done my fair share of searching around the area and haven’t seen pellets there before. I didn’t linger too long there, trying to minimize your presence after starting a blazin’ fire can be tricky.

I did return for a Basin watch and to see if the owl had puked up anything new about a week later (3/20). Nothing fresh, but today with a closer inspection of the area 9 more pellets were added to the total (25) under the same two trees. One pellet in particular had a good sized white claw/toe, toe bones extending into the foot held together by what appeared to be skin. Woulda been a large foot – rat maybe?

On the other side of the pellet there was what appeared to be an insect’s exoskeleton (beetle-like) sticking out. Now, I don’t take many pellets home anymore, not that I’m a pellet snob, but someone else can take ‘em if they want. “Leave ‘em for someone else or for no one if no one finds them”   Estonian pellet etiquette quote– live it! No one likes a pellet hog!

To make a long story short I took this one home and Amy cheerfully pointed out the pellet’s “exoskeleton” was really a toe-nail stickin out. (Gotta love that Palmer! Quick eyes.) Connected to the nail was a toe (oddly enough), complete with the scaly skin pads that birds have. Big ol’ chicken toe is what it looked like (noted- I have not spent that much time around chickens). Last night I pulled the pellet apart. The skin around the toe and claw turned out to be webbing, and within moments the story switched directions. Three-toed and webbed baby, the white “claw” was actually the “inner toe-nail” being exposed when the dark keratin fell off. Have you ever exposed your inner toe-nail? Quite painful.

The foot I would believe belonged to a small duck possibly a Bufflehead (which are called butterballs in Wisconsin cuz they taste so good) or maybe a small gull like one of those Bonaparte’s that frequented the Basin for much of early winter! Cool thought, and I agree with your thinking that there are too many Bonaparte’s gulls around for their own good. This is officially my first bird foot in a pellet. And officially (99% likely) eliminates Long-eareds from the equation.

Where we are at now - (3/26) – upon even closer inspection today 23 of the pellets have feather bits in them. (Let the speculation begin!) This is either an owl that is fond of eating birds or we’ve found the regurgant remains of a single duck/gull happy meal. (Or something else.) The pellets all appear to be of similar age, which admittedly can be tricky to tell with the freezing and thawing from this winter. That said – the question looms - If a single vole can inspire a single pellet, how many pellets would a Bufflehead inspire? Require? If this owl ate a foot, I’m sure he ate tons of feathers. Would the feather pellets be more frequently discharged, maybe smaller for comfort on the way back up? More to come on this owl if anything more comes to light.

Follow up question directed at Cheeseheads (capitalized out of respect) - Is a bufflehead that yummy that it’s worth throwing up 23 times for a single, complete meal? Please answer in rhyme.

Back to pellet week. (3/14) Perry Creek – As mentioned previously, the Great Horned Owls of Perry Creek are my favorites, and that even goes for the Pescadero Great Horneds, where I had a pretty good relationship with 3 pairs and knew of several more. I really shouldn’t play favorites, but its owls – how can I not?

what about this doesn't say "hello"?
I took the fresh pellet on the trail as a nice little “welcome” to me. It was over a 1/4 of a mile (as the owl flies) from the nesting area. I do recognize that this pellet was in no way a marking or statement other than "an owl puked above this spot recently" and that these birds tolerate me at best - but you know what - I’ll take being tolerated!

When I got to the nesting area around 2:30pm I sat down and (what I figure was) my presence was announced within moments by the male hooting it up a bit. Likely a contact message of “sit tight, i'm on it”  directed to the female who, if the books are to be believed, sits on the eggs during the day. I moved on quickly as I was hoping to catch them relaxed on my return at dusk - maybe even sit in as they change the incubating guard. I would not leave disappointed.

The changing of the guard chorus is the male and female hooting back and forth a bunch before switching duties. (sometimes it’s a quick trade off, often though it will be a series of short communications – maybe 6 hoot calls each owl – repeated several times. Depends on how the owls fell I’d think.

On this particular day they started around 5pm. Seemed pretty early, but young are hatching and stuff.  It sounded close to the trail (male closer) which got me excited. After a few rounds of hooting between the two, I started to work my way towards the owls as stealthfully as I could. I will readily admit I am not that stealthy.

I made my way to a small opening in the woods where I figured I’d have a shot at pinpointing the two trees the owls were in when they called again. It took a minute, but when they called I realized I had misjudged the distance and I would have to go back to stealth mode.

This scenario played out twice more before I felt like I had gone way further than I should have. I sat and waited and listened as the owls moved further away, but continued to call back and forth to each other in the same pattern as before. This was for my benefit I think. They were leading me well away from the nest, the nest that was undoubtedly closer to the trail, probably in one of the first trees I passed going up. The nerve of them! And it worked no less. I didn’t realize they had that much sneakiness in them! Scoundrels!

(3/16) Lane’s island – Scouting mission for an outdoor explorers field trip to look for pellets. I found seven Long-eared pellets, I think the same seven I found in December, now unthawed after a long frozen winter. I was not too surprised to not see any freshies even though these are the hot spots of several winters prior consecutively. I would imagine (let the speculation begin!) that this year’s deep, deep snow and the evidence that many voles spent time way at the bottom of said snow (see “Esker do!” below), a predator whose diet is made up “overwhelmingly of rodents”, might have had a rougher winter than others. (Might not have hard, could’ve been easier, don’t see how). And I’m not saying that those voles didn’t get to the surface every now and then when “subnivean fever” set in, but I’d think some owls might have to relocate away from deep, drifty zones like lane’s. That’s all I’m saying. Not too surprised at the low number of pellets.

Carrying Place Pellet
 (3/19) Carrying Place Preserve – on the top of the loop, near the glacial eradicts, I found a single, pretty fresh Great- horned Owl pellet just off the trail. First pellet I’ve found on the preserve.

A fine esker in the Basin

Esker see, esker du – with the great melt of 2011 happening overnight (essentially), many were surprised to learn that their snow covered yards were winter homes for voles. The evidence was clear though.

The voles were long term tenants in that “subnivean layer” (in the snow) that their tunnels became holds for materials they worked with for most of the winter.  Grasses used for nesting, feeding, as well as dirt (& grasses and other bicatch) displaced in name of underground excavation were deposited in trail networks. These collected for much of winter and when the snow finally melted the trail castings, or Eskers, revealed a bit of the story of the activity under the snow that had been going on all winter. Good year for eskers.

Trembling Merulius
Noticably around this winter - fungus. (3/26) Huber Preserve winter mushroom walk. 17 species found! Checklist: Violet-toothed Polypore, Conifer Violet-toothed Polypore, Tinder Conk, Maze Polypore (thin-walled), Luminescent panellus, Birch Polypore, Orange Jelly, Turkey Tail, Red-yellow Gilled Polypore, Chaga, Boring Poria, Trembling Merulius, Chicken Mushroom, Green Stain, Red-belted Conk, Brown-tooth Crust, Bleeding Confier parchment, Tuning Fork, plus as an added bonus - frozen scambled egg slime!

trembling merulius close up
Gillian inspects the damage a Red-belted Conk can do.

Noticably absent this winter (from my personal universe)– Saw-whet owls might be another species that depends on voles and might have had to “move on or else” this winter. I have not crossed paths/ears with a single little beeper, which could just be me, but it seems like I hear many each winter out here. Have you heard a saw-whet recently? Please let us at the VSRB know!

skunk cabbage submerged

soon to harbor eggs?

 Diggin' the reflections in the newly thawed wetlands. these are some of the places the coyote took me thru this winter. not so inviting at the moment to cross. First coyote, next spotted salamanders?

Rock relocator

the answer was obvious