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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, April 1, 2012

welcome to the vinalhaven sightings report – march 31st, 2012
love our sponsors – mcht and vlt
“I went woodcocking last night!”
from an admitted woodcocker

Highlights- peepers, woodcock,  otter trail, song sparrows, ring-necked duck, otter walks, red-bellied woodpecker cavity excavation, crossbills featuring red crossbill feeding young, first fungus, salamander nights… how’s the skunk cabbage coming,

upcoming events - vlt friday night woodcock walk. april 6th, 6:30 at skoog park to carpool. up to tip-toe and to heller field for woodcock watching.

basin clean-up - saturday april 14th, 9am. skoog park to carpool. could use a truck or two. bring gloves. we'll have bags and water. mcht and vlt.

contact me at for more information on these events.

Sightings – alright – lots of stuff reported, lets get on with it… 
red-bellied, but for how long?
photo by Jessica Farrelly
Around the island – Skin Hill – Red-bellied Woodpecker activity – (3/24) Jessica Farrelly sent in a report of the local Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a hole in a rotting tree just outside her house….(3/28) – the cavity is big enough for the Red-bellied to enter, and apparently too tempting for starlings to pass on! Jesscia caught some action on video, which is unfortunately too long to put on this report, where the Red-bellied is being attacked by Starlings, presumedly over the cavity it had dug. The usurping of cavities is a classic activity where you let someone with a better work ethic and carpentry skills build a fine cavity and just when they are putting on the finishing touches you come in and bully them until they hand it over. The red-bellied has not been seen in the area since (as far as has been reported), but didn’t have a mate/partner/whatever you want to call it as far as we know, so nesting probably wasn’t going to be beyond “asexual budding”,which is tricky for a woodpecker, or bird of any sort.

anyway, Red-bellieds apparently have been nesting further and further north over the years and are known breeders thru southern maine. first nesting behavior i've heard observed on vinalhaven, very cool sighting. 

skin hill red-bellied at cavity opening
photo by Jessica Farrelly

Peepers – Thena Webster, of “first to report woodcock 2012” fame, comes thru again with a earliest of early hearings – a spring peeper peepin’ away on march 12th. Extra early we’d say, and at this point days and evenings are both being bombarded with spring peeper “peeps”. By the time we returned to the island on the 21st peepers were being heard around the island. And folks were reporting “bout two weeks early” as the common concensus....since then things have quieted down a bit, at least on the windy , cold days. raging there for a few days 20th-25th or so.

Otter sighting – 2 otter sightings this round! - (3/14) – Ferry Ride 10:30 boat! Captain “I’ve seen everything possible from the boat and then some” Pete got the sighting of a lifetime (his lifetime that would be) while heading thru the narrows on the way to Rockland. For the first time Captain Pete slapped his eyes on a River Otter (and yes they are still called river otters even in the ocean out here) heading out from Lairey’s towards Leadbetter that fateful late morning. As the story goes, the otter spied the ferry coming, thought better of  the situation and high tailed it back to Lairey’s, climbing up and out of the water in the same spot where slides and sign have been seen from the ferry for years. So peter not only got to see his first otter from the ferry, but also got to feel dominant as he was the captain of a boat that scared an otter. Very cool sighting! (3/24) Crockett cove – Donny Ames and his sidekick Elijah, watched an otter crossing crockett river road (going towards the cove- east to west) close to the beginning by the north haven road. Always great to see an otter!
this otter is running full speed thru the woods

 Otter Trails, walks and poops– I’d put the trail camera along an otter trail between the basin and otter pond, left it there for 10 days or so. The area was heavily used, with 30+ photos of 5 species of mammals – snowshoe hare, red squirrel (yuck), raccoon, river otter (running full speed) and even a tiny vole triggered the camera. The branch in the photos has been removed and the camera has returned to said location. This spot is the current no-brainer. Anyway…
Add caption - bunny

fresh scat from island crossing otter
this exoskeleton took a ride thru
the entire digestive system of an otter

i went to where the otter trail comes out of the basin and found some new scat there (no VSR is complete until otter poop is included!), presumedly dropped/plopped when the otter started heading towards Otter pond the night it ran past the camera. The cool thing about this particular otter scat was the full crab exoskeleton that had travelled the otter’s entire digestive system! What a terrific ride for the crab! other than the death part at the beginning!

white-winged crossbill
photo by jim clayter
Crossbills – Jim Clayter sent this wonderful photo of a male White-winged Crossbill, from right out his front window (3/26)! As mentioned in earlier VSRs, White-winged Crossbills have been the birds that filled our woods with song all winter long, (along with the occasional Red Crossbill and Pine siskins in the second half of winter).

recently fledged red crossbill
photo by john drury
Adult Red Crossbill that fed the youngster
Speaking of Red Crossbills – John Drury reports of observing Red Crossbill adults feeding a youngster (3/20) by the turbines. John got a good enough view to report a “white goo” being passed from adult to youngster – of which the Birder’s Handbook says “ young fed regurgitant of milky seed pulp”. (yummy). The Birder’s Handbook also mentions that eggs are incubated for 2 weeks or so and fledgling are feed another 2-3 weeks before they leave the nest. The tips of the mandibles “cross gradually over few weeks after fledging”, and the youngster in the picture doesn’t have a crossed bill just yet, so it would seem it left the nest somewhat recently. Anyway, quick math has this young Red Crossbill leaving the nest around the 19th (let’s say), thus hatched around march 1st, thus parents started sitting on eggs around valentine’s day!! How romantic? Middle of winter, sit on some eggs! So yeah, these crossbills can breed whenever there is enough food and once again with this winter’s crop of spruce cones (and mildish winter) there’s probably many a young crossbill being fed “milky seed pulp” in our woods these days.  

Salamander nights – with the overall mild winter and the warm spell last week, which included cold blooded roadkill, peepers peepin’ and timberdoodles up the wazoo (almost literally, actually), you’d figure the salamanders would like to be getting a move on as well, if only they had a little moisture.  Spotted Salamanders migrate each spring with the first warm (40 plus degrees) rainy nights, as they move from wintering burrows to vernal pools. When conditions were finally met on Sunday (3/25) (I’m starting to get feeling back in my jaw” – woody allen), it was a cold rain, and more of a mist at that (“and such small portions” – woody allen). You have to figure that under different conditions the roads would’ve been covered with migrating salamanders.
life is pretty blurry on those salamander nights

Big , yellow-spotted and marching.
Marching from those old winter burrows dug feet in the ground.
Marching to puddles, turning them vernal pools by breeding.
So many crossing the road at one time
that you could drive “round the island”
and your tires would never touch the pavement.
justa Popping down the road.
bailey and rebecca enjoying
a spotted salamander
photo - meg day

lydia dug the salamanders
photo - meg day
leify got in on the action too
photo - meg day
(3/25) So Sunday night was not one of those big nights…(7:30pm) regardless, and with optimism that only 18 years in new jersey could inspire, I drove round the island. Zero salamanders, some earthworms, wet, misty, not overly wet…10pm – round the island – north raven road to coke bottle. 15 spotted salamanders, 1 and 6 were taken into custody, and then paraded around IVC daycare (see photos)…(3/28) Wednesday night cruising with stage manager Alison – another rainy night, time for round 2 on the salamander migration, Alison. On our first and second passes around the island salamanders numbers were low (3 I think) and they seemed and felt cold. The 3rd pass was the charm, 8:30-9pm as roughly 15 or so were seen at that time. We were psyched to see them, but Leify’s night time books were calling me back home so the drive was complete….Both nights of salamander migration were followed by morning snows. Go figure.

we love the basin
That said, it doesn’t seem like the big migration night has passed yet. tonight may be a good night, we’ll see.  Either way the kids like ‘em! And that’s good enough for me.
Editor’s Editorial - We were wrong!and we admit it. and in our process of processing just how wrong we have been we had to acknowledge our wrongness by officially taking back the claim that red squirrels and crows are equally annoying and vicey versey. This claim has been made or implied on several hikes I’ve led over the last year and certainly has been implied in at least one VSR post, possibly more. In taking time recently (not on purpose) to regroup and completely rethink this controversial topic thru thoroughly, I wholeheartedly agree with everyone– there’s nothing even close to being as “annoying in the woods” ( AITW year-round category) as red squirrels. This is not to say that I think crows are any less annoying than I may have previously stated or implied. No, its more of a reflection of the recent string of scoldings I’ve taken from red squirrels. It seems to be continual these days, and like completing some level of understanding of red squirrel behavior, I have recently acknowledged and accepted whole heartedly just how totally annoying their every move is – damn! even their cute is annoying. Crows will undoubtedly annoy me soon and gain a little ground on squirrels, but I think its time to crown the squirrels the true kings of annoying forest critters – its just an empty cup.

folly pond

We know we’ll hear from crow fans after this VSR is posted, most likely the same who’ve stuck up for crows before. Hardcore crowheads. No one ever writes in for the squirrels. Ever.

How’s the Skunk Cabbage coming? Part IIdung mimicry will be mentioned in this episode. Insect associatesRequired reading – how’s the skunk cabbage coming? part 1 – VSR - February 29th, 2012. Or not.
it was warmer in the spathe

March is a big month, and this year is bigger than the most recent of marches by most standards most of the time. In other words, in most years is a good prologue . so here  we go.

Along with the photo gallery called “still life with skunk cabbage".
…and for no other plant is march a bigger month than for the Skunk Cabbage. Folks will recall the first segment in our 5 part series “How’s the skunk cabbage coming?” back in the leap year report of the VSR, where we discussed skunk cabbage on a global scale and that they generate heat – keeping the flowering flowers at a nice 72 degrees. Well the local skunk cabbage has continued growing and developing and march is a sexy time for them as they conform to the unconformity of “Sex before food”, flowers before leaves. They have all summer to eat…

some spathes are twisty
What was happening earlier – actual late winter snows gave observers the opportunity to observe skunkies (hip VSR slang for skunk cabbage) doing what they do best – melting snow. The snow melting was “as sporadic as the snow” (literally) this winter and for a handful of days in early March skunk cabbage spathes had snow melting around them. The flowering spadix (cute little yellow nugget on the inside) respirates as it flowers, fills the all encompassing (and somewhat hoodie-like) spathe with warm fuzzies and air, maintaining that 72 degrees.  And so they spent the last month with their spadixes getting more (and more) bulbous and respirating while their spathes continued warming and buldging.

spathe and spadix
And with flowering you’d expect pollinators- the middle man, assistants in the flower reproduction gig.  And with pollinators you’d expect john Eastman.. here’s what’s he’s got to say on this

Honeybees are a main pollinator and “….. other pollinators are chiefly flesh flies (sacrophagidae) nad carrion or blow flies (Calliphoirdae) metallic bluish green and black insect resembling house streaks and fetid odor, some botanists cite this as an example of dung mimicry (!).  which may have evolved as an attractant for these pollinators”.

many spathe are showing "growing pains"
this year
We here at the VSR are big fans of mimicry, and we especially appreciate any reference to dung mimicry, or decaying beast mimicry – (some have said the spathe patterns are in to resemble meat). Anytime a plant or fungus is trying to attract insects that are attracted to some of the grossest habitats in the woods you have an open book to nastiness. It is deemed (but us who are deemers) significant that a plant can attract pollinators by mixing the visibility of a decaying raccoon, with the aroma of a pile of poo, in creating a flowering mechanism that is so beautifully manipulated and manipulative in all pattern, colors and shape, that it is Skunk Cabbage. “This means something”- and it quickly becomes “still and smell life with spathe”. Can you smell them now? That is the point of flowering things - to look and smell interesting, not necessarily good. maybe even to taste. Very cool to pick the nasties. Fetid adder’s tongue anybody? Not you jones.

we like the variety (in spathe)

“This plant (along with shrub willows) is probably the first pollen source in spring for honeybees (Apies mellifera),…honeybees do not fly well below 65 degrees but they are sometimes seen inside skunk-cabbage plants when air temperature drops as low as 42 F. The warmth in successive spathes it is theorized serve as “heat stops” for the bee, allowing it to restore energy for flights between soothes and to and from the hive.” Very cool. Who’s the somebody who sometime sees them in the “sometime seen inside skunk cabbage….as low as 42 F.”? my only question. I would say the “I warm you up, you take my pollen” seems rather advantageous to both sides here. Unless there is a big spider waiting for you…

some spathe are yellow/pale.
finding one is good luck.
finding two is bad luck
very bad
(Taking the mimicry up a notch) – there’s a spider that mimics the skunk cabbage spadix “a common one often found at the spadix base where it mimics a pollinating male flower, is Enoplagnatha marmorata, a theriid spider…”.

Let me get this straight - a Spider mimicking skunk cabbage flowers in an effort to catch insects that the skunk cabbage flower contraption is trying to lure inside its spathe by mimicking dung and rotting things. No way to make this any cooler of a situation. the mimicker (spider) is mimicking the original mimicker (the skunk cabbage – smell and look) to eat what the original mimicker was trying to lure (bees and flies) for pollination (helping with the reproduction – the middle man so to speak). fool me once.

Eastman goes on to say “after pollination the spadix bends towards the ground on its stalk, the spathe disintergrated, and the bright green leaves push up in vertical, rolled up spires. Soon after opening the cabbage leaves increase in size on their thick stalks, often becoming two feet long by early summer.”  
early group of skunk cabbage leaves

(3/23) Interesting to see where groups of leaves are already popping up in some areas, while clearly flowering and pollination dominate pretty much all others.
Eastman goes on to mention that “five to seven years of growth are required before the rhizome becomes large enough to permit flowering”. So maybe this particular spot is a younger rhizome, as it had the only leaves I saw for about a week.

these are all on the same rhizome
most recent photo - 3/31 fox rocks
And on rhizomes “…which grow two feet long, may be quite long lived, perhaps surviving indefinitely in stable habitats. Some skunk cabbage rhizomes have apparently persisted for centuries.”

Now how about that – “perhaps surviving indefinitely in stable habitats”. I love this quote – in the untra-right conditions a skunk cabbage could potential live forever? Or who knows?  There are skunk cabbages that are older than the Galapagos tortoises. Take that darwin!

All quotes above are from Johnny Eastman, who we thank immensely for jamming your books with information. Once again the book is “the book of swamp and bog” the author is john Eastman, we highly recommend it all of our readers who can read.

So that's how the skunk cabbage is coming as of april 1st, 2012

this is yellow fuzz cone slime,
first personal slime mold of 2012  (fpsm '12)
found while searching for the perfect skunk cabbage
We have a group to whom we are sending pre-emptive apologies, they are underappreciated but not completely overlooked... Grackles...Kingfisher... juncos...Black Jelly Drops...Chickadee excavating....Roadkill highlights...Purple Finch, Brown Creeper...Ring-necked duck...Hooded Merganser...great horned and saw-whet owls...mink

we apologize for not recognizing you more

the water felt warm at state beach last week