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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


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Welcome to the Vinalhaven Sightings Report – December 1st, 2012
Thanks to VLT and MCHT for their continued support
“We liked (most of) your jokes”


Highlights – finch irruption continues, barred owl, grebes including big number days, Fungus of the Year (FOTY) & Most Valuable Phungus (MVP) named, ducks and geese, ferry rides including Iceland and Bonaparte’s gulls, other stuff


Welcome (back) to the VSR– a big and hardy welcome to any new (any all historic) readers of the VSR. We here at VSR headquarters welcome and appreciate any photos, reports, and new email addresses (to add to our email list) that you all have to share. And while we welcome all correspondence from all sorts of views and perspectives, we do appreciate stuff being sent to our new email – – if you can remember to do so. And a big thanks to those who’ve sent in photos and sightings to share for this report! That’s why we do the VSR!
“Winter moth” is on the tip of the tongue these days, which is good since they do hold the potential of eventually (and we stress the word EVENTUALLY) killing all the hardwoods in town. With that alarmist statement made, it should be noted that we are not in panic mode; the local damage at this point has been assessed by the “experts” as “low to moderate” in the hardest hit yards, with many bands catching few to a small bunch. In fact, some folk have complained that they have not caught as many moths as they expected/ hoped, like they are disappointed that they do not have the same infestation as others.  Anyway, at this point the threat is largely potential, not kinetic, and the destruction of the town hardwoods is certainly not etched in stone as destiny. Not a single tree has been killed by Winter Moth on Vinalhaven (as far as we know). We will have another winter moth action update soon, complete with photos with adult themes. Look for it in the next week or so! There are other things being noticed/observed, reported and shared with you all. The VSR readers! Read on!


beautiful barred owl
photo by john drury
Sightings – Barred Owl – Greens Island – John Drury got this fantastic picture of a Barred Owl out on Greens Island recently. Barred Owls tend to be thick on the mainland (they won’t shut up at Tanglewood in Lincolnville) but out here on the island they are uncommonly to rarely seen or heard. These are the owls with the classic “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all!” call, are regularly active at dusk and dawn and in general tend to be somewhat tame. In other words, if they are around they tend to be noticeable. That said, for all the hours we (the royal we) have spent owling on Vinalhaven we (the royal we) have not seen nor heard a single Barred Owl. Over the last 7 years there have been reports from Poole’s Hill Road (with photos by then a 9th grader Brian Stanley), Poor Farm, Long Cove, Crockett’s Cove, Carver’s Pond and now Greens. Several of these reports were from a few years back when big numbers were reported in Knox County (mostly on the mainland) as loads of Barreds were pushed south as food crops (rodents) for the owls had low numbers and the owls were forced to look elsewhere for food.  Whatever the status it’s a great sighting out here matched with a wonderful photo. Keep your eyes open, this may be a good year for Barreds on Vinalhaven. Maybe even I’ll get to see one.


evening grosbeaks
photo by Hillary Bunker
Winter (ok, late fall) Finches continue, and it’s not even winter yet. Pine Grosbeaks and White-winged Crossbills seem to be the big two, but reports of Common Redpoll, Pine Siskin, and American Goldfinch are being sent in. Plus Hillary Bunker sent in some shots of Evening Grosbeaks she had in her yard recently (thank you Hillary). Evening Grosbeaks are rarely seen out here, with skin hill Sally having the only other sighting I’ve heard of in the last 8 years,  and of course that was just a few weeks ago! Hillary mentioned “we haven’t seen them for a long time”, hinting of historic sightings in her neighborhood.


pine grosbeak from lane's
not the best picture, but it's what we got
And with the waves of “winter finches” coming thru Vinalhaven and the rest of New England, it takes me back to a VSR from way back when, where we (the royal we) discussed the dynamics that make winter bird “irruptions” so special. It was around the transition time of turning 2007 into 2008, when many birdies were showing up on island, and folks demanded an explanation for the increase in bird activity or (more likely) I wanted to explain what was going on with no one asking. The VSR – in whatever form it was in back then- had a segment called “Pardon the irruption” & if I remember correctly most of the response we received were folk telling me I spelled “eruption” wrong. It became a lesson in vocabulary as “eruption’ is a song by Van Halen and what volcanoes do, and an “irruption” (bird-wise) is when you are invaded by birds “from away” in a atypical fashion.  Here’s a clarification on the difference…


Irruptions – Denotes movement of large numbers of birds following the breeding season into areas beyond their normal range, as distinct from “eruption”, which refers (to) movement out of the areas from which the birds came.” “species involved tend to erupt out of relatively remote regions.” – Christopher W. Leahy, The Birdwatcher’s Companion

It breaks all VSR codes, but we are going to take a stroll back thru memory lane to take a condensed look at what makes a good irruption, like the one 4 or 5 years back…

Irruptions generally occur when food shortages cover a large geographic area in the North. Years of good seed crops (such ’06-’07) result in higher populations of seed eating birds, as more of their young survive. Years such as these are typically followed by a year of poor seed crops. Thus, the seed failures occur when bird populations are higher than normal. Starving, or at least pretty hungry, the birds “erupt” (bail, flee) from up north only to “irrupt” in big numbers down here – and yes, mid-coast Maine is being treated as south here.


Seed crops in the Boreal Forests of Canada were high in ’06-’07, thus it was a low year for northern species being seen on Vinalhaven – with the exception of White-winged Crossbills. The seed crop failure of was somewhat expected, but the coinciding fruit failure up north wasn’t. This one-two punch of fruit and seed failures resulted in an event that’s been described as “once a decade”.


Starting in October ’07 flocks of more northerly species were being observed throughout Maine. Big flocks of Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulous), Common Redpolls (Carduelis flammea), & American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) were observed seen on Vinalhaven. While smaller groups of Pine Grosbeak (Pincola enucleator), Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus), Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis), Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapilla), & White-winged Crossbills (Loxia leucoptera) were scattered throughout the island. Northern Shrikes (Lanius excubitor) predatory songbirds who hunt songbirds and small mammals were also seen around the island. The Shrikes most probably followed their prey which was erupting and irrupting.


Many of the songbirds had moved on by the end of December, likely due to food amounts running low as they gorged themselves. A few individuals have stayed and can be seen at feeders and in the preserves throughout Vinalhaven


There you have it, the first and hopefully only trip back in the history of the VSR. We’ll see where this year’s irruption takes us; it’s always a good place with lots of smiles.
hooded merganser
photo by sally
Winter (ok, late fall) waterfowl – Now is the time for ducks. Hooded Mergansers and Canada Geese are filling up Carver’s (which should freeze up soon enough) , and Seal Bay, the Basin and State Beach are getting the “sprinkled plus” treatment by many duck species-  whatever the hell “sprinkled plus” means. Many of these waterfowl are just passin’ thru, but an impressive amount will overwinter here. But what’s going on with these duckies really? Way more than overwintering we (the royal we) would say. Here we go…


carver's geese
photo by sally
Many species – locally noted as “especially” with Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Eider – have male members (ha ha, he (the royal he) said “male members”) “coming out” of what’s known as “eclipse” plumage and settling into “breeding plumage” at this time of year. Eclipse plumage is a post-breeding plumage where males take on characteristics (plumage wise of course) of females. Most if not all male ducks got thru this kind of molt as it increases the likelihood that they will survive. Female ducks draw considerably less attention to themselves by their physical appearance when compared to males (show offs), and thusly a male looking like a female tends to stick out so much and risky getting nailed by an eagle during the non-breading season.

A similar comparison can be made for humans. Think of any drag queen you know, when they are garbed up they tend to not stick out at all. Wait, forget that, the strategy may not cross over to humans. Anyway, we (the royal we) digress…. here's some bufflehead off the Huber Preserve jocking for position


And beyond that conversation, ducks have moved beyond the eclipse plumage and into early courtship for next year’s breeding season. Yes, its’ November (probably not when you read this) and ducks are already trying to pair up. Check out these videos of Bufflehead and Old-tailed Ducks (formerly known as Oldsquaw and (in denial) known as long-tailed duck) as males battle and jockey for position alongside females. It’s November for Christ’s sake (reason for the season?)! “never been a better time than right now” – red hot chili peppers. Tip of the hat to ducks everywhere.

and here's a little more of the head-popping that Bufflehead do as a warning/display towards other male bufflehead 

these milkweed seeds are full of potential
Winter (ok, late fall) Ferry Rides – in my completely biased opinion, late November thru the first half of December is the best time of the year to watch birds from the ferry. It’s comfortable (compared to the DEAD of winter) and the seas tend to be loaded with birds – just look at the numbers below from these “typical” late fall days. And, as always, the 7 and 8:45am are the best for birdies…(11/16)  21 Common Loon, 2 Red-throated Loon, 223 Bonaparte’s Gulls, 28 Black-legged Kittiwakes, 1 Laughing Gull, 11 Surf Scoter, 20 Old Tail Ducks, 1 Bufflehead, 1 Red-breasted Merganser, 24 Black Guillemots, 3 Great Cormorants,  25 Purple Sandpipers, 37 Harbor Seal…(11/25) 1pm return – Iceland Gull…(11/29) Bald Eagle, 9 Red-breasted Merganser, 19 Surf Scoter, 2 Black Duck, 9 Common Loon, 1 Bufflehead, 19 Old-tailed Duck, 21 Black Guillemot, 1 Great Cormorant, 134 Bonaparte’s Gull, 24 Black-legged Kittiwake, 8 Razorbill


and this milkweed seed landed on scat
might be a seed dream come true
A word on numbers, the way we count – I was approached by a VSR reader this summer who told me they had a hard time believing some of the numbers of birds that we (the royal we) report in these here reports. I imagine they were referring to stuff like the “223 Bonaparte’s Gulls” noted above on November 16th . At the time I thought it was a funny comment to make since the person had never been counted birds (or sheep or crows,or anything else) with me on the boat or anywhere else so how would they know about what we (the royal we) were seeing or counting. Anyway, it did get me thinking that maybe others are doubtful/skeptical of certain high counts of birds reported here at the VSR. It’s a healthy skepticism I’d say, but let me assure you it is needless, we are pretty good at counting. Calculus can be tough at times, but addition is pretty easy. Even with our (the royal our) jersey education.


getting cold out there
 All things considered (no connection with that boring program on NPR) I will say there are times when counting a large group of tiny birds, let’s use a group of roughly 200 Purple Sandpipers as an example, that are flying in a tight, undulating fashion (nice fashion) a few hundred feet off the ferry when it can be better to count by 5s or 10s then to try and count individual birds. On those counts I can assure you we (the royal we) err on the conservative side of things, cuz that’s just the way we roll. The counts in those situations may not be the exact total, but are within a few of the actual total observed.  These counting situations are very rare, maybe 2 or three times a year where we (the royal we) count by 10s, but are necessitated by circumstance.



frozen jelly
not taken from the ferry
As for the 223 Bonaparte’s Gulls on the 16th, I (the royal I) actually counted 223 Bonaparte individuals that I could readily identify (I am pretty good at counting by ones). In reality (that far off land), there were hundreds of more gulls up the bay that were just out of the ferry’s range - many of which were likely Bonaparte’s (they were by far the most abundant bird from the ferry that day) but were too far to identify. 
There were certainly more than 223 Bonaparte's Gulls from the ferry that day.

Usually when counting birds we (the royal we) count the birds. There is little that we take seriously here at the VSR, but good and accurate information is a priority. If you are not convinced, then I invite you to stand out in the cold and count with me. Actually, even if you are convinced I invite you to join me in the cold counting birds. There is so much to see this time of year, it’s downright silly for anyone to be indoors on the morning ferry. Anyway, that’s a little background on how we count things, we use numbers and never exaggerate. I feel like I’ve said this a gazillion times. Moving on….


lane's is so beautiful
Lane’s Island – (11/17) 30 White-winged Crossbill, 8 Pine Grosbeak, 6 Yellow-rumped Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, 4 chickadees, Bald Eagle, Flicker, 6 Great Cormorants, 4 Common Loon, 4 Black Duck, 5 Crows….


 State Beach – (11/17) – 18 Horned Lark, 15 Red-necked Grebe, 7 Great Cormorants, 4 Common Loon, 5 Old-tail Ducks…(11/19) – 2 Horned Grebe, 2 Horned Lark, 5 Red-breasted Merganser, 1 Common Loon, 5 Old-tailed Ducks, 2 Black Guillemot, 4 Ring-necked Gull, 10 White-winged Crossbill… (11/27) 71 Red-necked Grebe, 5 Common Loon, 1 Red-throated Loon, 6 Oldtail Duck, 5 White-winged Crossbill, 6 Red-breasted Merganser, 4 Black Guillemots,


spark plug
Paddle to Calderwood…(11/27) – 56 Old-tailed Duck, 32 Surf Scoter, 4 Red-throated Loons, 5 Common Loon, 40 Canada Geese, 5 Horned Grebe, 5 Bufflehead, 2 Bald Eagle, 15 Red-breasted Merganser, 12 Black Guillemot, 3 Bonaparte’s Gulls


Calderwood Island – (11/27) Red-breasted Nuthatch, Crows, Oldtail Ducks, Common Loon, Horned Grebe,  Downy & Hairy Woodpecker, Common Redpoll, White-winged Crossbill, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-tail Hawk, White-tailed Deer, Harbor Seal. And Split Gill!


and while we're at it, here's a group of old-tailed ducks that i videoed from the kayak in the little thoroughfare that were having some space issues. there are tons of oldtails out there, take a look for some when near water, or listen for their lovely call..

FOTY - A whole bunch of words about Split Gill Fungus (Schizophyllum commune). It is simply a no-brainer for us here at the VSR to unanimously vote Split Gill the Fungus of the Year 2012 as well as MVP – Most Valuable Phungus – decomposer division. It’s completely our honor to have the Split Gill mentioned in this report. It has certainly evolved over the eons many miles (kilometers for those types of people) beyond humans. More about the Split gill here…
split gill in st. john


First – from the experts…


“Schizophyllum is unique by virtue of its longitudinally split or grooved gills….It survives dry spells by folding back its gills, and hence can be found practically year round…the peculiar manner in which the gills split lengthwise is unique. The “split” gills are actually two adjacent plates which separate and roll up in dry weather, thus protecting the spore-bearing surface. Specimens sealed in a tube in 1911, then moistened 50 years later, unrolled their gills and started shedding spores…Edibility: Too small and tough to be of value. However, some natives of Madagascar are said to chew them, for reasons unknown.”

-        David Arora, Mushrooms Demysitified


“Schizophyllaceae – This small family of 10 genera includes one of the most widely distributed mushrooms in the world, the pretty (judgment) Common Split Gill. They have what appear to be gills, but are actually radiating, branching folds or lobes… Split Gill is found throughout the world…survives loss of moisture by curling back the outer sides of its folds…It revives in wet weather                         - Gary Lincoff, Audubon Guide to North American Mushrooms


Alright, so cool, it’s an odd, funky fungus. But why is it the FOTY 2012? Well, while it may be found worldwide, and while I may have routinely found it back in my California dayz, I have found exactly 2 patches in my first 8 years of Vinalhavenness  – at State Beach and in the Whites, both on driftwood. The driftwood thing made it cool enough on its own…

my favorite weekend paleontologist
using hands and front loaders to look for bones
..and then 2012 hits, fungally speaking. We (the royal we) found Split Gill on/in St. John (they were everywhere), at the place we stayed in Estonia, the beach below our house here on the Reach (driftwood), at thanksgiving in upstate New York, and then yesterday on Calderwood (driftwood) and Stimpson Islands.  The one in Estonia got the biggest “oh yeah” and fist pump from me this year. Oh yeah, and in Florida when I was visiting my dad (just before he died) in the hospital in august.  That was the most special find, and I still have the branch in my room on a shelf. Not trying to get too squishy, but the biggest thing is that it now reminds me of my dad. There you have it. Sorry for the ramble, it’s part of the Kirk package, just like the bad jokes. Congratulations Split Gill, you deserve recognition even without such sentimental value attached. But that’s the way it goes.  
its like treasure these skulls

and here's my favorite local paleontologist. digging up skulls in the horseshoe pits out back. his purity keeps it all real. if you know what i mean...

see you out there.