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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, December 15, 2013

Welcome to the Vinalhaven Sightings Report – December 15th, 2013

With the support of MCHT and VLT - whether they like it or not!

there is a dragon head in this picture
Highlights – way too much about Snowy Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, Boreal Chickadee, White-winged Crossbills, Northern Shrike, Green Winged Teal, Carolina Wren, and an editor’s editorial about Cat status!


snowy owl stock photo - seal island nov. 2011
BE AWARE – SNOWY OWLS have invaded New England! - A friendly “snowy owl heads up” to our readers out there. Several sources have tipped us (the royal “us”) about a current invasion of Snowy Owls into Maine and New Hampshire and airports in New York State (and probably other places – those are the only three places my sources mentioned). Oh yeah, there was even a report of a Snowy Owl being seen on North Haven last week! What will they think up next?


(Snowy Owls continued) So, What’s going on? Or Pardon the Irruption (vol. 2) –

And with Snowy Owls (and other birds) it is an “irruption”. For those grammatically inclined –

"to irrupt" was originally to rush in, and "to erupt" was to burst out. (by the way - to “erirrupt” is to rush in and burst out simultaneously)

There can be a variety of reasons which lead to Snowy Owls (and birds in general) to “irrupt”, and they all have to do with finding food – basically not enough food up north to support owl numbers.   The book (Natural History of North American Owls by Johnsgaard)) mentions that North American Snowy Owls irruptions“…generally occur at intervals of about 3-5 years, often coincidentally with cyclic or periodic declines in lemming populations”!


Cool irruptions - This is the 4th Snowy Owl irruption in Maine in the last 10/11 years that I have been aware of and the 3rd we’ve mentioned in the VSR). Some readers will recall the irruption 2 years ago (ahh the winter of 2012) when Snowies were seen as far south as Louisiana and for the first time in Hawaii!!! Fortunately the one in Hawaii was shot on sight (and rightly so - they hate snow and snowy things) -  



If memory serves, that incredible irruption was credited to lemming populations being at such high levels in the summer of 2011 that “not enough baby snowy owls died” (what a weird thing to type) and so tons of young, and (well) hungry owls headed south looking for food.  Here’s some more about “cool nest dynamics” from “the book” again -  “N.A. Owls” johnsgard.


“ Watson (that would be A. Wilson from Ibis publication 1957) found that 32 eggs were laid in 4 nests during a good lemming year, 31 owlets hatched and all of these fledged, apparently an unusually high breeding success rate”

 High breeding success rate? Read that again - 31 fledglings out of 32 eggs laid – success indeed! Crazy that this huge owl (465 mm wingspan or .000465 km) would lay 8 eggs in a year, 2 days apart, with asynchronous hatching, so a nest might have a 2 week old young, and well hungry owlet begging when the last egg hatches! If that was an eagle’s nest the last 5 hatchlings would be promptly recycled and fully digested within hours. Enough food for 8 young owls? No wonder so many head south those years. There must be so many lemmings those years the adults hardly have to leave the nest to catch ‘em!


 blazin' orange mock oyster
Side note - I wonder if snowy owls have ever (or how often) catch lemmings from the nest, like without leaving it? Lemmings don’t seem so smart, their existence seems to be based more on their sexual skills than survival skills (sounds like the bottom of the food chain to me!). I mean, aren’t these the dudes that jump off cliffs in big numbers?


yes, the sun sets often these days
Anyway, Where to look for snowies around Vinalhaven (about freakin’ time) – Snowy Owls are diurnal owls of the tundra, and for those who are not too familiar with the tundra, it’s a place with few to no trees and not much darkness in the summer (good to be diurnal there!). When Snowies come south they are bound to be found in similar habitat – around here its grassy open fields (North Haven is loaded with fields) and ledges or islands covered with grass (such as Sheep, Brimstone, Otter, & Roberts Islands and both Green Island and Ledge just outside Lairey’s narrows from the ferry). In these habitats look for big white rocks that fly or are being mobbed by crows. There’s not much snowy habitat on the island, so at least it doesn’t take long to check them out.


And then there’s rocky balds like the top of Fox Rocks. (12/4) -With the hot tip about Snowies (keep the tip!) I went to a few of the places where people have mentioned seeing them over the years. David Mobbs – the Australian dude with Maria, the mexican street dog that only understood Spanish and had 6 toes on each foot– told me he’d seen one on top of Fox Rocks. I believed him then, and I believe him even more now.


my first snowy owl pellet - i named it snowy
Tracking a Snowy Owl - When I got up to the top I was hoping to find one circling, hunting and catching all the snowshoe hare it could find (this is not intended to be aggressive towards Snowshoe Hare). After a bit, it was obvious that I wasn’t going to find an owl, so I went to the kairn that marks the top of the fox rocks, and I stumbled (literally) upon this big pellet. I thought it was a rock, and stepped on it (on purpose) when it gave in under to my foot. Big pellet, and clearly (in my experience) from an owl. Looked to be made up of Mourning Dove parts. And then I found the poops!


there's poop on that kairn!
About a dozen or so scattered around the bald, and from a big bird. They were special. Now, we’ve all seen plenty of white wash, but these were different – I swear! Thick, yet compact, with not so much creating a splash upon impact with the rocks, but making more of a slide. They just “felt” different (not that I touched them), if you know what I mean. Think of the last time you watched an eagle or an Osprey poop? When it comes to pooping with most raptors it’s the “ol’ tail lift and projectile eruption that results in an irruptive splatter on lower branches and ground below over a wide radius”- classic quote that I just made up. The fox rocks poops were somewhat contained. And one even was pooped directly on the kairn! Either the bird was using the kairn as target practice or it pooped straight down onto it while sitting (and sh*tting) on top. So? Watch this video of a snowy owl pooping -


snowy owl poop is special

Made you watch! A “something” search for “snowy owl poop photos” turned up only one photo of snowy owl poop (that we could find) but it matches the above observations perfectly. Tonight I (finally remembered to) looked in the Bird Sign Book and Tracks (favorite  pellet book) where Mark Elbroch got to write this sentence “Owls splat or puddle, dropping scat straight down, whereas hawks and falcons raise the tail to eject a spray of uric acid” – Awesome sentence and great confirmation on the poops!


So what does this all mean? Universally speaking it means very little, but I did get to see snowy owl poop and a pellet for the first time. And it was the funnest tracking I’ve had since tracking King Boletes in Haines, AK 2002!


So in conclusion – and to make a long story short – Keep your eyes open for snowy owls out here, on the water, and on the mainland.


rough-legged hawk
Rough-legged Hawks – Rough-legged Hawks are another raptor from way up north that irrupts, this time of the Buteo genus – like red-tails and broad-wingeds – with adaptations for a Buteo hunting in the tundra where there are limited perches to hunt from.  Long-wings to support hovering and gliding (of which the Rough-legged does more than other Buteos) and with dark carpal patches mid-wing leading edge for extra support are just a couple of things that stand out with this Hawk. They are one of our favorites.


Anyway, (12/4) 3 rough-legged hawks were seen at State Beach.  A rough-legged Hawk continues to hunt Sheep Island and has been observed from State Beach (with a scope) each visit since the 4th.


The Birder’s Handbook mentions that “invasions by Rough-leggeds and Snowy Owls often occur in the same year, with about a four-year periodicity, because both of these species largely on rodents”. So Rough-legged and Snowies go together! What a great pair!


there is a shrike at
the top of this tree
Around the island- Ball grounds (pre-freeze)– lots of Canada Geese and a Green-winged Teal (John Drury)…..Lane’s Island – Northern Shrike continues to hunt the fields. Look for it perched “high upon the treetops”, also - Northern Flickers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Song Sparrow, Golden-crowned Kinglets….(12/13) Folly Pond – White-winged Crossbill heard…Huber Preserve – (12/7) Boreal and Black-capped chickadees, Brown Creeper, Red-breasted Nuthatch, GC Kinglet, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Oldtail Ducks, Common Eider…Skin Hill – Sally continues to have “her” Carolina Wren visit her feeding station up on the hill!



sunrise from the ferry

From the ferry – (12/8) – hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gulls and in lesser numbers Black-legged Kittiwakes. Lots of Black Guillmeots and about 40-50 Razorbills. Also - 4 Bald Eagles, Old-tails, Surf Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser….(12/9) hardly doodley-squat compared to the day before.



bonaparte's gulls from the ferry
Editor’s editorial - Cat Status Fever – subtitled-

“From Kirk the jerk or cat-hero kirk (via the kirky turkey tunnel!)”


(Kirk the Jerk)  In the past when cats were mentioned in the VSR (not very often) people have questioned our motives, anger and aggression directed at the feline persuasion. In reality (in my mind’s reality that is) nothing could be further from the truth. I am actually a huge fan of cats (I will see it again and again) – my pet growing up was a cat named Charlie who slept in my baseball cap when he was little, my favorite mammal is the bobcat, and my favorite sports team is the charlotte bobcats (all of this is true except the last part).

kittiwake from the ferry

From our perspective (from my mind’s reality’s perspective actually) most of the writing historically about cats have been purely (mostly?) and simply “observations worded in print”. There was little to no intended judgment – even when we wondered aloud what it would be like if the coyote ate feral cats (I don’t know, maybe we’d have more voles!).  We were simply wondering.


razorbills from the ferry
And with our (the collective “our”) love for cats well documented at this point, a photo was posted in the Dec 4th VSR of a cat (that had been) stealthily hunting a group of sparrows which I also happened to be watching at State Beach. She came out of nowhere, dropped into formation - a variation of a belly crawl, but done in cat style so it was a clean crawl. Cool to watch. Of course it stopped hunting when it saw me in my stupid (judgment) “blaze” orange hat.


blazin' orange
Side Note on “blaze” orange - Every animal except the dumbest of all the dumb critters (all deer species are included) in the woods see blaze orange from miles away, and they stop doing whatever they were doing and go the other way when they see it. November is an odd month “woods wardrobe wise”.


Cat Scratch Fever! Or “the best possible ending” – (Cat- hero kirk? Not really. ) – (12/6) Well, it ends up the cat in the photo is actually a cat that had been missing since October (2013 I presume). I was told today that posters/fliers with pictures of the cat were posted around town. Never saw ‘em, but anyway, the story ends in the best possible way. To protect the identities of the human couple whose cat it “is” we at the VSR have opted not to use their first names. 


is it cold out here?
wolf's milk slime in snow
On Tuesday I got a phone message from the “Lady Feez” (1/2 of the human couple and fellow “banana slug” alum) asking when I had taken the picture. She was very excited that the cat in the picture was her lost cat. Well, it ends up the “lady feez” went to state beach a couple of times with a bag of cat food (no word on what brand of cat food was used) and called out the cat’s name (mittens, moxie, tinkerbell, or cinnamon – I never did catch the cats name) for a few days (with breaks) and eventually the cat came over and the reunion had begun.


So “the lady and the bearded feez” got their cat back and things became a little bit safer for the animals in the state beach area. It was a win/win for everyone and everything, and in a way makes me a cat-hero (I may be taking more credit and getting more than a little ahead of myself). 


snow covered "roger" at huber
(kirky-turkey tunnel) Which brings me to another point– I had heard about the missing cat (via the wind), but it never even crossed my mind that this could be the one. It looked good, healthy – I figured it was a neighbor’s cat. Maybe someone has been feeding “mittens” or maybe “tinkerbell” helped herself to a whole bunch of critters for lunch over the last month and a half. What an adventure “moxie” must have had – owls, mink, and eagles to deal with. How often did it run into raccoons? How hard was it to find enough grub? It would be hard to argue that this cat struggled out there, I think we can all agree on that.


Now some will say “blame the owner, not the cat” but this would be difficult to do in this case. Folks who know the “lady and the beard” know they are like the nicest people and recently the whole team moved into new digs. Transitions can be tough for a cat, my Charlie peed all over the place after we moved. Cats wigout, these things happen.


at least 4 otters crossed into sands
Anyhoo, we here at the VSR are not trying to blame anyone or anything anyway. The result here is to be cheered. Some will celebrate that it’s good for the birds, and some are happy cuz the cat finally came “back to Feez”, but it seems like everyone is happy that the cat was removed from State Beach. There are cats all over the island. It would be great if we had more stories like this one. I’m just happy to be a part of it. Whatever.   


otter track
Quick note on tracking – With the light snows the otters picked up right where they left off. 4 or 5 otters left Old Harbor Pond (12/13) and crossed into the Sands. Tracking was spotty, but a larger otter also went from the Sands over to Old Harbor Pond. Those tracks were notably larger….also the otter trail thru the woods connecting Otter Pond and the Basin has had an otter come and go this past week (12/13). With this snow today, there’ll be plenty of tracking to talk about in the future.

...which got wrapped nicely so it could be a
proper mummy

squirrel mummy we found when emptying out the
old barn....

we are always in search of buddhas around the island

Rock on and stay warm!!!!!!