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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


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Welcome to the Vinalhaven sightings Report –
March 20, 2017

Brought to you by the shared efforts of MCHT and VLT


Highlights – Great Horned Owl, Woodcock, White-winged Crossbills, purple sandpipers, razorbill, great cormorant

Business: contact us –


Tiit trick – click on photos to enlarge.


Upcoming things – nature wise – some woodcocks are back, more to come, get out crepuscular and look/listen for them… theory, the snow will disappear, and in theory we will get some rain when the temperature is over 40 degrees. Drive around that evening – Spotted Salamanders will be making their way to a Vernal Pool near you!


31 Reach Road, March 10th
Sightings – American Woodcock – They’re Back!!!! (3/10) right next to the old compost bin at 31 Reach Road, this little nugget of a tasty woodland shorebird was looking for worms – and I hope he got enough of them! Right before the storm.


woodcock, hunkered down
photo by Jim Conlan

(3/11) Jim Conlan sent in this photo of a local woodcock from his yard. Thanks for sharing Jim – you the man.

Great Horned Owls – are being heard around island! (3/10) Huber Preserve – during the bonfire we heard a distant Great Horned towards the end of dusk….Jamus Drury heard one in the early hours (3/17)Across the pond” with the pond being Carver’s Pond. Great Horned Owls have been sitting on eggs for the last month or so, and young are ready to hatch! The adults will take turns on the nest, and will call back and forth several times before switching spots/responsibilities. The “switchings” often take place at dusk or dawn, but can be heard just about any time after mid-afternoon.


(3/11) – Huber preserve – bunch of white-winged crossbills flew over me in the early hours when I headed back out to check on the fire from the night before.


yes, there is a purple sandpiper in this photo

Ferry Ride – (3/10) – 10:30 to Vinalhaven – 28 Common Loon, 95 Common Eider, 16 Surf Scoter, 61 Oldtailed Ducks, 5 Red-breasted Merganser, 3 Red-necked Grebe, 23 Black Guillemot, 1 Purple Sandpiper, 1 Great Cormorant, 2 Black Duck, 3 Bufflehead, 1 Common Goldeneye.


yes, there is a great cormorant in the this photo

This was a cool ride 95 eiders felt like a lot, probably the most I have seen in years from the ferry. Plus the token single Purple Sandpiper and Great Cormorant were fun. But the real story here was the molting of Black Guillemots and Common Loons….(look below)


yes, there are seals in this photo

(3/17) 7am to Vinalhaven…- 68 Common Eider, 23 Surf Scoter, 16 Common Loon, 46 Oldtailed Ducks, 29 Black Guillemot, 2 Red necked Grebe, 3 Razorbill, 2 Red-breasted Merganser, 1 Bufflehead….4:30 to Rockland – Bald Eagle.


…. Great to see some Razorbill, and once again the Eider numbers felt high compared to years past.


yes, there are oldtaileds in this photo

…lots of people think of the spring migration of songbirds in May as a sign that “love is in the air” (anthropomorphism). And while “love” (the royal “love”) certainly permeates the atmosphere in spring, those looking can see that “love process” (anthropomorphism) starting way before May. For our intents and purposes we will define “the love process” (anthropomorphism) as when hormones inspire plumage change or behavior changes that are “connected” with reproduction! Yippee!


yes, this loon is going through a molt
back feathers and face showing signs

What is inspiring this conversation here? The obvious signs of “molt” that can be observed from the ferry. Here’s what Steve N.G. Howell (the third?) has to say about the molt process in his hit book – “Molt in North American Birds


Although molt (or molting) is often thought of as feather replacement, it is really the systematic process of feather growth….The loss of feathers in later molts is usually a passive by product of new feathers growing in and pushing out the old ones”


yes, this loon is a little further along than the other
I think you get the picture…Steve seems to be a bit picky about terminology – it’s not replacement, rather it is pushing out the old feathers by new ones.


The bottom line here is that what I went through in my early twenties, which is often refer to “my molt” isn’t molt at all. First off I have no feathers, but also when my hair fell out it wasn’t because new hair was pushing their way out. Nope, it was either my high levels of testosterone (stud levels) or something about my mom’s dad (my grandpa) being bald or whatever. I’m going with the testosterone thing.


Here’s more from Steve…..


yes, this guillemot has not really started molting yet
Molt is also a dynamic evolutionary process and what we see today reflects millions of years of ongoing fine-tuning. In some cases, a bird’s molt strategy may not make sense to us, but this may be because there has not been enough pressure to change a strategy that worked well thousands of years ago


We can use Common Loons as an example of what Howell talks about with “strategies making sense to us or not”. Common Loons are going through the molt process right now as I type or when you read! For me and lots of others, this is a good time to have a beard, not to molt. Anyway, here’s some more about Loons


There are only a few times in their annual cycle when loons can molt their wings, and these time constraints are overcome by having a synchronous wing molt. By shedding their primaries and secondaries at the same time, birds become  flightless for a few weeks while new wing feathers grow. Another advantage of this strategy for heavy-bodied birds with small wings is that a short period of no flight may be better than a prolonged period of labored flight

yes, this guillemot is molting, from white to black

Ever watch a loon fly? Can look somewhat like a struggle or hassle. Imagine them trying to fly with some of their flight feathers gone. Not pretty. Better to ditch them (flight feathers) all at the same time, that’s what evolution has done with them. Here’s more on this..


unlike geese and swans, which undergo synchronous wing molt while tending young, both members of a breeding pair of loons  need to remain fully winged for territory and brood defense, as well as commuting to feeding areas. The traditional view has been that larger loons don’t have the time for wing molt before northern waters freeze up, so they postpone it over the winter until favorable conditions return in early spring.”

yes, these two are at different stages of molt

So it sounds like Loons – which are clearly going through molt these days – are mostly likely flightless at the moment or will be soon enough. What a world! Just a brief pause in flight and when they come out of the molt they will be flying and ready for hot cloacal action. Good on you Loons!



yes, this guillemot is almost there, little white on the face
Many factors – length and intensity of daylight, age, and hormones (of course) to name a few – play a role in triggering molt. Black Guillemot molt seems to be closely connected to daylight length as molt can be observed in individuals as early as the first week of January – with daylight length starting to increase December 21st (obviously). Here are a few shots from the ferry of Black Guillemots in different molt states.


(Sea) Ducks -  here’s a different strategy, timing wise…. Common Eiders are the only sea duck that regularly breeds locally and are a good example of duck timing.


yes, this surf scoter is molting out of its juvenile plumage

Ducks breed in the spring, after which the males molt into eclipse plumage (when they appear like females/juveniles) for the summer. Many male Eiders go offshore or to staging areas at this time and molt their flight feather all at once, and are flightless for a few weeks. Starting in early fall the males molt back into their classic white on top/black on the bottom and the females stay with their classy “brown” look. And that is when courtship starts up.


yes, this eider has been looking sharp since round November
Most sea ducks that visit Vinalhaven waters for the winter (“from away” ducks) show up in mid-late November and have already molted into breeding plumage and are ready to court. Red-breasted Mergansers show up a little earlier and when they do they all look the same. They molt in our waters!


So Eider males look sharp these days and have since Novemberish. Nothing to do with daylight getting longer, because they actually molt as the days are getting shorter.


apparently these dudes (oldtails) are hot enough to attract
some mates without molting
The exception here is Old tail ducks, formerly known as Oldsquaws, and in books mislabeled as the insulting Long-tailed Ducks. Apparently their non-breeding plumage is “hot enough” to attract a mate, and they don’t really start molting into their “breeding plumage” until they get ready to head out – in April and May and thus the timing of their outwardly appearance changes is a little different than the others. Go old tails! Be your own species!


look closely, there is an otter trail captured in slush
a little to the right of center heading across Old Harbor Pond
Otter stuff – (3/17) Old Harbor Pond -  had some time and saw some trails from the road (I love spotting otter trails from the car, makes me feel like a millennial or an American or just me!) so Jamus and I strolled around and followed trails from a pair of otters that went from OHP to sands cove. It was so cool.


The historic den is still in use (no surprise) and tracks in the latest snow where fun to follow. That last snow was famous (in some minds) for having a nice layer of ice on top of the several inches of snow and the otter trails showed how the otters dealt with is.


trails and tracks showed a lot of activity at otter den
the ice on the snow made for some interesting
tracks and trails

view from the latrine. there are two trails in the
middle of the sun glare coming from the rocks
across the pond. pretty cool. 

On the pond ice, where the snow was wind blown and the ice was slushy and the trails from the den to the latrine were captured in slush. These were the trails I spotted from the road. Too easy!

no otter report would be complete without
some spraint

two otters heading out to sands cove.
in fluffier conditions there would be
belly slides

alternative entrance to otter den

snow fleas. of course
Once the otters pooped their hearts out (loose interpretation) at the latrine they headed to the sand cove and the ice covered snow made for a trail of bounds that break the ice, rather than belly slides that would be productive in soft snow.


Cool to see a pair of trails, cool to see that the den is still active, but coolest to get out on Old Harbor Pond! My favorite ice place in Maine by far.
inside washing Nanni's car

the sickness is starting to finally release my family from its grips. coughs lasted three weeks or more, but we are getting better, thank you for the kind thoughts I have received since the last VSR.

he was not going to try and catch the GBH with the net.
I swear.

so little exploration with the boy has taken place recently as we have been healing.

here's a couple of classics from Christmas in South Carolina.

see you out there!