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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


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Welcome to the vinalhaven sightings report – November 30th, 2011
VLT, MCHT, KTG, + U – all my favorite letters are involved
“sparrows “

Highlights:  Mockingbird, Ipswich Sparrow,  Lapland Longspur, Boat rides – including a Color-marked Gull?, Goldeneye including Barrow’s, Horned Lark

Business: Happy Birthday Sofia!

Hope everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving!

Feeder Stations - Here's a special call out to those who have active feeder stations around the island. A few different stations have reported absences of routinely seen species - Blue Jays and Nuthatches to name two -  

Sightings: In town 

photo by pat lundholm

Feeder stations - Pat Lundholm had this Northern Mockingbird stake claim to her feeders for a least a portion of a day (11/4). Mockingbirds are (pretty much) an uncommon visitor to Vinalhaven, with this being the 6th (or so) sighting I've heard of in the last 7 years.

by p. lundhom
Mockingbirds are most famous for being the state bird of both Florida and Texas, where they certainly are numerous in numbers, but also states that harbor some of the most beautiful and unique birds in the U.S. (judgement). Their choice of state bird is more of a compliment to Mockingbirds than anything else.

They are regular on the mainland Christmas Bird Count, this is the first Mockingbird I've heard of for about a year and a half. Great sighting! Tell us whats going on at your feeders!

Around the island - lane's - had a really good Pine Siskin and American Goldfinch morning -

Soemthings different - in the last VSR we talked about the original “Big Three” fall songbirds that tend to fall “under the radar”– Snow Buntings, Horned Larks and American Pipits.  In retrospect probably should have named the group the “Big Five”, and included Lapland Longspur and Ipswich Sparrow.  The Sparrow and the Longspur (actually a type of sparrow)are not seen regularly (or ever really) where the Buntings, Larks, and Pipits are seen yearly.  They all favor similar habitats and to our extreme pleasure the last two entrees into the group both turned up since we last wrote. Both are Vinalhaven VNMs, which certainly don’t happen every day. Here we go.

aware, but not threatened
 State Beach - Ipswich Sparrow- VSR devotees will recall the report a few reports back that Patience Chamberlin reported an “Ipswich Sparrow” at State Beach. (11/15) A trip to State Beach to scan for (and find 8) Horned Larks was interrupted as the very same (assumed) Ipswich Sparrow Patience reported as it popped into view and actually let me get a few shots of it.  

Many questions arise with an Ipswich sparrow sighting like –1. What the hell is an Ipswich Sparrow?and  2. why should I give a scat about their deal? Well, just like with eiders and ash-throated flycatchers, there’s a lot more going on with Ipswich sparrows then meets the eye. You can be the judge about if these guys deserve to be given a shat about.

things are looking up
Baseline info on Ipswich sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps)-  subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis ), breeds (pretty much) exclusively on Sable Island, Nova  Scotia, where anywhere from 1000 to 6000 pairs (depending on your source) breed each year. (a handful   breed on the “Mainland” Nova Scotia with local Savannah Sparrows, mixxing the genes fresh so to speak).  and winter along North America’s Atlantic Coast, Nova Scotia south . Their preferred habitat and can be found along shoreline, dunes, along the wrack-line. .

point reyes bathing - classic savannah sparrow look
stock photo

3 . whats a Savannah Sparrow and what’s the diff(erence)? Well..

Here are a couple stock photos of mine from Point Reyes National Seashore and Homer Alaska that show more traditional appearances. Savannah Sparrows are fairly common breeders on grassy islands along our stretch of coast.

homer singing
stock photo

Here's what the wacky folks at the “planet ispwich : A bridge between the Ipswiches of the world” website had to say about the The Ipswich Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps)
"Initially thought of as a separate species, modern DNA testing now shows that the Ipswich Sparrow is in fact a subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis). The two subspecies do sometimes interbreed. The Ipswich Sparrow now has the scientific name Passerculus sandwichensis princeps.
The Ipswich Sparrow is paler & larger than the Savannah Sparrow, with light grey plumage, grey-brown back & narrow pale brown streaks on a white breast. In in spring & summer they develop a yellow stripe above the eye. Males & females are similar in appearance.
Sable Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, is the Ipswich Sparrow's main breeding ground, with an estimated population of around six thousand. Nesting on heaths or beach dunes, some birds remain on Sable Island during the winter, while others migrate south down the Atlantic seaboard.
Due to erosion of their habitat & human disturbance, the status of the Ipswich Sparrow is classified as vulnerable."  
 “In addition to their larger size and paler plumage (clearly adapted to their dune-grass habitat), "Ipswich Sparrows" migrate earlier in spring and later in fall, have more successive broods (three routinely and occasionally four, compared with two routinely among mainland birds) and tend to be more frequently polygynous (males often with two, and occasionally more, females in their territories).”
 Got it?

4.       Why “Ipswich”?

More from the website “Planet Ipswich : A bridge between the Ipswiches of the world” (…

“First identified in 1868, the name comes from the fact that the discoverer, C J Maynard, shot one on the beach at Ipswich, Massachusetts. Initially misidentified as Baird's Sparrow, Maynard later  (1872) recognised it as a new species &  gave it the latin name Passerculus princeps, although it also seems to have been known by some as Ammodramus princeps maynard (see Jonathan Dwight's "The Ipswich Sparrow & it's summer home" 1895).”  Kinda makes you wish the species was first spotted in Athol, Mass.
nice habitat

5.       What’s a “Subspecies”?

“A species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.  While in many cases this definition is adequate, more precise or differing measures are often used, such as similarity of DNA, morphology or ecological niche. Presence of specific locally adapted traits may further subdivide species into subspecies”. Simply stated by Wikipedia. (aren’t I hip?).

6.       What’s a Sable Island, Nova Scotia?

“…it lies about 180 miles east of Halifax, Nova Scotia, near the edge of the continental shelf and is the only emerged part left of an extensive archipelago which existed on the shelf during the last glaciations.”

Whatsmore…”Sable Island, known as the graveyard of the Atlantic, may be a sailor's worst nightmare but for the wildlife that call the island home, Sable is an island paradise” Sable has the largest concentration of Grey Seals in the world , as each winter 60,000 congregate along sable’s beautiful beaches and sexy dunes to procreate. (i lwould love to see that!)

Historically – “In 1801 the Canadian government limited access to Sable Island in order to stop the plundering of hundreds of shipwrecks that lie in the waters surrounding the island. By doing this they also created a wildlife haven on this small island that is located 300 kilometers south east of Halifax, Nova Scotia”.

So it’s this big ol’ sand bar out in the middle of nowhere, happening with wildlife and isolated enough to allow a little island biogeography (my favorite kind of biogeography) to go down. A species adapting to conditions on the sand bar, bigger, lighter, breaking away(?), and on its way to speciation, as some folks argue it may be already  “I wish they would split them so people would pay more attention to them” . The mixing with the Nova Scotia locals apparently is a stumbling block to species status. and DNA testing. "i heard the verdict is still out on science".

habitat for most of the big 5
“A few "Ipswich Sparrows" can be found in most summers mated with mainland birds in the coastal dunes of Halifax County.” “birds of nova scotia, nova scotia government website.

anyway you look at it, a cool visitor to our island Paradise from another island paradise a little bit further out to sea!

Lapland Longspur - (11/29) - Basin Marsh - i came across this guy while trying to maneuver into position for some Barrow's Goldeneye video (never did get that video). The Longspur was hanging in the grasses surrounding the marshy pond (i used to know the fancy term for these) and seemed flighty the first 2 times i saw him (wouldn't have seen him if he wasn't flighty), but then on the 3rd go he got so comfortable he was almost too close for photos (hate it when that happens) .This is the first I've seen on Vinalhaven, but from looking at the habitat, i imagine lots (nice word) might pass thru each year and chances are they would go unnoticed. An "uncommon" species in Maine at this time of the year, Lapland Longspurs are actually an abundant species in the right terrain - and that terrain is the Arctic Tundra. Let's get some perspective..(with some help from "the sparrows of the United States and Canada" Rising, James, page 252 - awesome book, awesome page!). 

is that your longspur, or are you just happy to see me?
long nail on hind toe gives name
"The Lapland Longspur is generally the commonest bird of the high Arctic where it can be found in a variety of tundra habitats"

"In migration and winter, the species characteristically forms large flocks, sometimes apparentrly over a million individuals"

"if one moves slowly, one can often appreaoch the flock closely, and sometimes walk into it."

"the longspurs are, nonetheless, surprisingly difficult to see on the ground".

"especially in the east, where they are not particularly common, L. L. are often found with pipits, Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings, although Longspurs generally stay together in these mixed flocks."

Alright, so this was a solo individual (from what i could tell) who's tameness might have led me to wonder how healthy of a bird this was. It macked on seeds continually thru a 10 minute session of a distance of maybe 20 ft. Longspur clearly visible. even got to tape it preening.

Sounds like an abundant species for north america (sometimes flocks number a million? come on!) that sticks to the heartland, and the arctic. Soemwhere i read they are especially common where "Winter wheat" is grown. I've never had a dinner conversation about them before. and even this was a quick one.

Anyway, the Basin marsh keeps pumping out impressive birds that have not been documented in many (or any) place else on the island. Here's the people side of things....

Linnaeus himself named the Lapland Longspur (Fringilla lapponica) in the 10th edition (truly the best edition at the time) of Systema Naturae, in 1758. Linnaeus had done field work in Lapland early in his career and certainly was familiar with them from the expereince. it is not known if this was before or after dancing was forbidden in Lapland.

For Audubon, it was a different experience that 1819, February morning in Kentucky. He would later write " I saw immense flocks scattered over the open grounds pn the elevated grassy banks of the Ohio. Having my gun with me, as usual, i procured more than sixty in a few minutes...Although in rather poor condition we found them excellent eating." Gotta love Audubon - called it like he shot it.

anyway, it was a bonus to have such a session with the Longspur, by far the best i've had on the east coast, and i don't expect to have it repeated again anytime soon. appreciate these kind of sessions differnetly.
Add caption

Ferry Boat Rides – (11/19) – It’s getting on to be my favorite time of the year to ride the ferry, Nov/Dec trips can be loaded with birds while being somewhat comfortable outside – especially when compared to February trips. Anyway, things are just starting up, get on the boat and ride!

i am red and i am in the middle of this picture
for most trips many (40+) Common Loons, Gannets, and Black-legged Kittiwakes on almost every boat (42 count on the 2:45pm sunday, 100+ Kittiwakes on the 19th) are standard..

an odd sighting on the 19th was a red-colored Herring Gull. no conclusion has been reached on the cause, wheather for research or for (painting balling) fun,    

anyway, back in the day of prehistoric research methods scientists would color dye gulls to monitor movements and habits. i've only seen the posters they'd put up about calling in painted gulls. i'm sure having bright colors painted on has little to no impact of the bird's well being. if paint it would congeel the feathers and be potentially harmful as it would limit insulation to a certain extent. anyway, we'll keep you posted if anything develops.

reimer, dee in warren saw a similarly colored gull in Rockland Habor for a single day this summer, only the paint was orange.

we also had a purple sandpiper try to land in the boat.

Ducks - lots of em! Red-breasted Mergansers are coming out of "eclipse" plummage as we speak...Hooded Mergansers flood Carvers Pond, Common Goldeneye are starting to show up and even a Barrow's was seen in the Basin yesterday (11/29) .... All 3 scoters seen in the reach... and what feels like a bomber year for bufflehead - a few days of over 100 Bufflehead just from lane', state beach and the basin. thats a lot of bufflehead. here's some with a common goldeneye in the mix...Long-taields are everywhere

this guitar is pretty fun
Leif - (11/28) - it was bound to happen sooner than later - but today my not quite 3 year old boy corrected me on a fungus identification and he was right. it made no difference that he knows 3 species of fungus really well.

up at the turbines leif was rockin' out with his dump guitar when i spotted a fungus on a small log nearby. it looked at first to be the edge of a gilled polypore and when i quickly said that leif chimed in " i think its an orange jelly". it was of course. kids today!

and on a windy day at lane's. he was digging his fan. a little too close at that. he laughs whole-heartedly when he watches this video...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Welcome to the vinalhaven sightings report – November 14th, 2011
Written for, inspired by and brought to you by you (& me)!
And some help from the letters MCHT and VLT
“2" - the most owls John has seen on Seal Island on any one time

Highlights – eagle season, snowy owls, under the radar fall songbirds, shorebirds featuring sanderlings and purple sandpiper, yellow-breasted chat,

Business: Hey - send sightings and pictures and videos (nature stuff only please) to the official VSR sightings report email address at - we don't check it that often, but we also don't lose or bury emails there. it will eventually get read. sound promising? 

(almost all) VIDEOS in the report - have all been made where there was wind. folks may want to turn down the volume before starting. Except for the last one, having the volume turned up adds much to it.

sightings -State Beach – (11/10) 52 Red-necked Grebe, 2 Black- bellied Plover, White-rumped Sandpiper, 8 Horned Lark .

Greens - Sounds like John had a nice session with a Yellow-breasted Chat in the rambles and thickness on Greens. He got a few views of the impressive large, but also often impressively shy warbler.

Calderwood Neck - Chuck Gadzik spotted a nice Northern Harrier starting its journey across the island as

pleasant river - 20 hooded merganser and 12 lesser yellowlegs

fluke ride to saddlback and back - (11/1) harlequin, oldsquaw, bufflehead, loads of common eider, one eagle. adult peregrine at the buffaloes, (many) black  and (2) white winged scoter. sanderling at Otter and little brimstone, purple sandpiper at saddleback.
young eagle on greens
photo by john drury
Eagle season – Q:“when’s the best time to see eagles?”, A:When they are here”. “Here” is here  and “when” is now as they (the royal they) goes. November Eagle Hot Spots include – the basin bridge, vinal cove bend (Calderwood neck road), carrying place, and Folly Pond.  Currently Folly Pond has 6 or 7 Bald Eagles hanging tight & easily viewed from the beaver dam or the pump house. look at this incredible picture John Drury got out on greens island. they are everywhere (or soon to be!).

very calm purple sandpipers around goose rocks

Paddle towards Calderwood – thoroughfare – (11/1) Incredible day loaded with Surf Scoters and Oldsquaw. Highlight was the 2 Purple Sandpiper who let me float by super close in the bright orange  MCHT kayak.  As the two were left high and dry on a ledge succumbing to the tide, one purple sandpiper ended up jumping into the water and swam to another ledge nearby. Photo may or may not be included.

we (the royal we) helped a monarch that day. In reality, i probably gave it another small number of minutes or so with my hand's warmth and efforts. i thinks its hind wings were tweeked or maybe hadn't opened fully yet. maybe they opened, kinda had a feeling this dude was screwed.

crockett cove marsh

Crockett Cove – (11/1) an elongated (and exponentially cool) salt marsh that may be the largest continual stretch of said habitat (salt marsh) on the island. That day’s notes noted an impressive pile of otter scat. So the Crockett Cove otters are doing well, good to know….

crockett cove otter scat
Ducks…around the islandCarver’s – plenty of Hooded Mergansers (50+). Limited numbers of Red-breasted Merganser, Bufflehead, Mallard. Seemingly gagillions of Canada Geese have arrived (waterfowl, honorary duck)in Carver’s Pond as well….Pleasant River Hooded Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Black Duck and Mallard have all been seen recently…Folly PondWood ducks, Black Ducks, Hooded Merganser

Under the radar fall/winter songbirds - or go see the real "big three" before the season is over!– there’s a small group of songbirds (3) that turn up just about this time every year (if not more often) that don’t readily go to feeders, they prefer rocky areas with grass and goldenrod, and they come thru in hunting seaon. The last one might be the major reason why they often go unnoticed and are thusly underappreciated (judgement). Maybe if the birds wore orange. Anyway we’re not talking about finches and whatever else you gotst irrupting from the north. No, I’m talking about the original big three – Horned Lark, American Pipit, and Snow Buntings (with Lapland Longspurs being an oddball substitute species). OK and sure - everyone loves snow buntings, (who can blame everyone) but no one really talks about them, which is what makes them so cool (kinda like a foot massage). Anyway, in my experience State/Geary's Beach is the most reliable spot on the island to find the big three, and not a trip to the peninsula (where the picnic table is) at this time of the year fails to toss up (produce, produce, produce!) one of these species.

anyway, so here a couple more videos of where to look for these species and what they are up to. they tend not to flush until the last second, so scanning ahead on the beach or rocks or what have you might be a good idea. we had the pipit video in the last one, here's a video of a snow bunting or two from seal island (11/9)

and here's a horned lark one from state beach (11/10)

thanks for the tides!
the moon. used to be a part of the earth.
kind of a small sacrifice for tides i'd say.
we'd be nothing without the tides.

Moon news – sometime the other day the full moon was as close to Jupiter in the evening skies as it will be this month. Here’s a nice picture of our satellite.

Crazy Week – I do believe last week was the first week where everything I had scheduled and had planned around got cancelled. I guess weeks like these happen, and lets be honest there were really only a handful of things on the set agenda list, but still nothing got checked off. a lot did get done though 

harlequin ducks
 Anyway, the bonus of having things cancelled can be the spontaneous opening of an freestyle afternoon or morning (or in this case a full day for work) to do whatever.  I think it was about 30 minutes later that i got the good word of a trip to seal the next day to search for Great Cormorant pellets. Classic. (11/9). its all about the timing.

Close friends know I have always coveted a sight of thy neighbor's (cormorant’s) pellet, an oily, fishy stinkin’ sphere. i have coveted it for years really. today i got closer than ever before, i was actually looking for them. 

Trip to seal – “Oodles of gannets “was one theme of the day (many diving), as were migrating Loons – mostly Common, potential Red-throated sightings - . we passed by several kittiwakes on the way out.  Maybe a dozen Harlequin Ducks  at little Roberts. On the island – Song, White-throated, White-crowned and Savannah Sparrows. Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, and House Finch. Snow Buntings, American Pipit, Horned Lark, American Robin,  and Northern Cardinal (both dead and alive).Mourning Dove,  Raven and Bald Eagle. A big turn of the day happened when two Snowy Owls suddenly got tossed into the mix. Both were 1st year birds - thus the amount of dark feathers on the body - which always makes me wonder if we are the first people they've ever seen. (then i think how sad i am for them that john and i are the first people they've ever seen - they deserve better).

Anyway, the first one was startled up on the western end as we walked above it, unaware that the owl was there until we must have been right over it. this guy was pretty alert and awake from that point on. here's a video of this owl after he first landed - he appears to be turning his head completely around :

on the wing - photo by john drury

we spotted this owl two more times, the first time he was jumpy and headed to the eastern end, where he was spotted being harassed by a raven. at that point the owl headed over water and up towards brimstone and vinalhaven.

it was during the scanning that we spotted this guy (owl #2) on the ridge down the line. it was well aware of us as we approached from a distance off. he let us get close, as snowies tend to be pretty tame and patient around people and life in general.

a fun thing to do with this picture is to zoom in
as far as you can on the white dot that the
scopes are pointed at. that's the owl 

seemed rather relaxed

Islands like seal, brimstone, otter, and sheep (and many other ledges and rocks) open areas with exposed rock/grass mix or are good places to look . apparently places such as these are similar to the tundra  of their preferred habitat tundra where they live up north.

Here's some cool snowy info provided by johnsgard, paul "north american owls" 2nd edition, 2002, a (very cool book donated to the VRK by Allison Thibault - overdue thanks!)
there are few crappier places to spend your youth
Great Cormorants - the reason we headed to seal
youngster on the right with the white and light body 

"Still hunting by watching for prey from an elevated perch was used most often, ground walking by walking or hopping over the snow surface and apparently listening for prey immediately below was done occasionally" now that would be cool to see.

Unfortunately no matter how patient these guys were, they were never going to get that vole, or mouse, or lemming on seal. Fortunately for the snowies though they have somewhat of a varied diet. Here's more....
""winter stomach samples from 87 Maine owls had rats and mice present in 35 percent, snowshoe hares in 20 %, and passerine birds in 10% (Mendall, 1944)". I'd love to know where the owls samples were taken and if there was any increase in bird take along the coast where they spend time on islands with no rodents such as seal.

The birder's handbook says this of their diet " Lemmings, other rodents; if scarce, increases variety of prey, even taking marine invertebrates". Imagine finding a crab exoskeleton in an owl pellet? that would kick some serious ass.

So is this guy hunting snow buntings, larks, and pipits in this video or just keeping tabs on the scene around him?

photo by john drury
the owl took turns between sleeping, looking extremely dazy and scanning all directions for awreness sake i would guess. he eventually moved to another rock view maybe 100 ft away and that's where we left him.

it seemed to take off in slow motion and John was able to snap this beautiful shot. we took a course as close to the shoreline as was safe on the rocks and left him hunting, resting, doing its thing. while down low we saw a large flock of roughly 200 Purple Sandpipers. it was nice.

the beautiful day on seal kept getting better.
the ride back - extended into the dark as times have changed and the snowies delayed progress dramatically. Started with 5 Sanderling

Several Greater Shearwater were spotted, including a few on the water. 2 Parasitic Jaeger were seen B-lining towards Black-Legged Kittiwakes, hassling and kleptoparasitizing our favorite gull. That's alright, we are Jaeger fans as well. Plenty of Northern Gannets continued to pass by and hunt along their course south/east. A view of a well attended, Great Cormorant evening roost on Roberts Island closed out the day perfectly

bonus clip - grebe or loon: state beach, here we find red-necked grebes seeming tiny and skinny next to the common loon that comes into the video late. two of our favorite groups of birds Loons and Grebes, especially the grebes. we are big fans of the red-necked grebe. in tribute to the red-necks that breed in beluga lake in beautiful homer alaska, along the boardwalk and along the road, we salute you and state beach. enjoy the video!

i think this is the only note to end on....