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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, February 15, 2018

Welcome to the Vinalhaven Sightings Report

February 15, 2018

Thanks to MCHT and VLT for supporting the sharing of nature observations!


Highlights – Varied Thrush!, Snowy Owl, Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Red Crossbill, Long-eared Owl pellets, and yes, more otter shots!

 if we may say so - the highlight list itself is pretty darned cool!

Business – Contact us! Send in your photos and sightings to to share your “stuff” (stuff being observations). Sharing is a good thing!


Tiit Trick – click on photos to enlarge. Miss you dad!

varied thrush
photo by Jim Conlan

Sightings - Varied Thrush – for the second time in VSR history photos of a Varied Thrush visiting Vinalhaven have been sent in by someone named Jim. This time the shots were sent in by Jim Conlan as the Varied Thrush spent some extended time in his (and Colleen’s) neck of the woods.


raccoons are fat, alive and well up long cove way

Look at a Varied Thrush range map (I dare you!) and you’ll find that these little beauties (judgment) who happen to be cousins of American Robins – not another Turdus, more of a second cousin thrice removed (not sure what that means at all) – are predominately a West Coast species. Varied Thrushes overwinter from coastal California thru much of Washington State, and breed all the way through Alaska. In my experience Varieds are the thrush of Alaska (take that Grey-cheeked!) and are one of the few bird songs I can sing – it’s a hum and a whistle at the same time. Quite lovely actually.

warmer days mean winter jelly mushrooms like orange jelly
Anyway, if you look at a range map of Varied Thrushes (I dare you!) that includes reports or sightings outside of its “traditional” range you’ll find that they have been seen in every state except for Arkansas (and really, who can blame them) and in most Canadian provinces. So as a species they have that “wandering jones” which is good idea if you are looking to expand your range (don’t be limited to what the range map says) and possibly find some new resources to take advantage of. Or maybe they have that gene that makes it hard for them to follow their internal maps. Only Varied thrushes know the answer for sure, and that might be giving them too much credit.

and Tree Ears!

It’s cool and great that another Varied Thrush has been spotted on Vinalhaven, and even cooler that the Conlans ID’d it and realized that this individual had come a long way – Northwest Territories maybe even! Thanks for sharing Jim and Colleen, this is an awesome sighting!


a red red crossbill. not the best shot, but crossing bill is
clearing seen
“Otter pictures are nice, but how about some Crossbill shots” – this comment sent in from an anonymous, poetic birdwatcher got me thinking – how come I don’t get Crossbill shots very often? Is it because they are often quiet and inconspicuous until they are about to fly? Or is it because they make the most noise while they are in flight, and thus are 6 inches of undulating movement and tricky to get photos of? Or is it because this combination of Crossbill behaviors often results in crossbill hang out sessions less than 5 seconds before they take off?

interesting thing about this guy was his pulling at what
appeared to be a cocoon of some sorts.
Barely time to find and “slap some glass” (use binoculars) on them, much less get the camera focused and snapping shots. It ends up the answer is because I never really try to get photos of them. If I have a 4 session day with Crossbills that often means about 15-20 seconds total with them over the course of a full day. Or is it because I am working when I hear them and often don’t try to get photos? Probably doesn’t help in the frequency I get crossbill photos!


the interesting this is that they don't really eat insects much.
could this pulling be part of gathering nesting materials?
Upon this request for Crossbill shots (one of the finest requests I have fielded) I kept the camera handy while in the Basin recently and timed my lunch perfectly with the lunch of a Red Crossbill as I was able to snap a few shots before the dude took off.


this is ice made out of ice bubbles
Crossbills come in two flavors – Red and White-winged. White-winged males are red, so body coloration isn’t the best route to identification between the two species. White-wingeds have white wings, and reds don’t. This is a good, quick and easy way to tell the species apart if you see the wings. In flight the white on the wings shows up clear, like a pine siskins wing. Crossbills are finches and thus fly in an undulating – flap, flap, glide, flap, flap glide – sort of pattern (number of flaps in between glides is up to the Crossbill!). As with all finches, both genders will sing their “breeding season songs” as opposed to most songbirds where only the male sings.


this is a family of ice made of ice bubbles
All that is fine and good, but let’s face it – the coolest things about Crossbills are their bills and the lifestyle that allows them to have. The bills of both Crossbill species do not line up when the bill is closed, resulting in the “crossing of the bills”. This is an adaptation to get into conifer cones and gain access to the tasty (level of tastiness cannot be confirmed) seeds within. A crossbill will jam (or place) its bill between scales of a cone and then close their bill, once again resulting in the bill becoming crossed. The crossing acts to pry scales apart and then the bird will use its sticky tongue (level of tongue stickiness somewhat confirmed) to pull out the seed (treasure) found within. This relatively easy access to seeds allows crossbills feed offspring and raise young no matter what time of the year as long as there are enough cones around, even in the middle of winter. I took videos of a red crossbill feeding fledging youngster on Vinalhaven in April several years ago. This means that courtship and mating probably started in February during a huge snow year. As long as there are cones, it’s warm enough for love in the Crossbill world (anthropomorphism).
this is a female red crossbill


And then in Tenants Harbor I had my camera handy and snapped some more shots of some Red Crossbill here on the mainland. Maybe it’s just timing, or that I was trying to get photos, but the relatively longer sessions with lots of calling….i don’t know….maybe it means something about what Red Crossbills are up to. Probably timing and trying.


frozen cascasdes
Northern Goshawk – while working up Long Cove way I (inadvertently) blocked a Goshawk from its approach on a group of Chickadees it was hunting. The goshawk was working its way through the spruce forest on its approach to a mixed species songbird flock that was near me and had no clue of the sneak attack that was about to happen. Unfortunately at the last second the Goshawk pulled up as it saw me munching on a sandwich and it bailed back through the woods and was not spotted (by me) again. The songbirds had no idea of the relatively huge predator or the situation, and I felt bad for a moment – I would have loved to have shared some lunch time with a goshawk!


close up of frozen cascades
State Beach – had a few minutes (2/7) to spend looking from State Beach and so focused my sights on Sheep Island – yes the one with the house on it when you look south from the beach. Maybe having the house and people out there part of the year means more rodents, but Sheep Island is a classic spot for avian predators to hang and with my scanning I picked up a Rough-legged Hawk hovering over the fields waiting for a rodent to make that fatal mistake and show itself. On the house itself stood a Snowy Owl, probably not hunting from that height, but maybe digesting (nicely) a meal it had scored on the island earlier. Either way, “rough-legged and snowy on the same island means happy bald person at state beach” - ancient Estonian saying.

somewhat old, slightly algaed long-eared owl pellet

An evening trip to Lane’s (2/6) was pretty cold, but a little exploration turned up a Long-eared Owl pellet directly under the same perch where I saw one on Lane’s 11 years ago. Creatures of habit! Good chance it was not the same owl – good perch I guess!

otter latrine on a hump in the basin


Mainland – otter neighbors – so I had yet another session with Larry the otter on the ice since the last VSR post. He kept coming onto the ice to stretch and itch – doing some fur maintenance in between dives of a minute or so – catching fish under the ice!


There you have it, a little shorter and sweeter than the last few (dozen) VSRs!


little scratchin'

leif with a list of places where you can find gentalen writing and photos

Enjoy the silence and we’ll see you out there!