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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


Monday, December 18, 2017

otter slides make me happy

Welcome to the Vinalhaven Sightings Report –

December 15th, 2017

Brought to you – in part – with the generous support of VLT and MCHT



Highlights – Snow Fleas, Grebe vs. Guillemot, red-throated loon, and frozen jelly mushrooms, otter stuff, mink stuff, ferry rides and more!



otter tracks make me happy

Business – contact us – sightings, reports, photos, attitudes. Let us know what you are up to and what you are seeing while you are up to it! – we thank you pre-emptively!

this moon didn't seem any more super than all the others

Tiit trick – click on the photos to enlarge.


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otter stepped on a leaf

Photos Banner Moffet was kind enough to send in the next few photos from Crockett Cove way. Thanks for sharing Banner!

speaking of photos - there are a lot of them, or so it seems in this one. enjoy!

work of carpenter ants
photo by Banner Moffat


Winter Moth update – Folks are asking, and so we are too. Have you seen much for winter moth in the last month? The first week of December seems to have been peak time in St. George, and there were reports of some moths being seen at the same time on Vinalhaven. We have not received news of any eyewitness account of mass flights being observed as we have received in previous years. This may not mean anything (or it may mean something), as big flights/eruptions of moths can disburse within short periods of time (certainly within 20 minutes) – so lack of sightings could be about timing with these pesky Lepidopteras. That said, the lack of reports on moth sightings is nothing but a good thing and gives hope. We’ll see!
photo by Banner Moffat


Back to earth – Pam Alley – legendary local singer, actress, and all around cool person – sent in this report as I was getting ready to post. Shocking news –


birch polypore
photo by Banner Moffat

Yes, we did have a lot of those nasty little creatures. One night I was leaving the town office, and as I was driving by Karen's and BJ's there were hundreds of them flying around. It seemed like they were centered in certain places. How long did you say it might be before the flies start doing their thing?”


hostess the reason for the season?

Well, there you have it. It is supposed to take around 10 years for the flies to have an effect, if they did take. Been about 4 or 5 years at this point I believe.  Got a little ahead of ourselves with the paragraph at the beginning of this section. Nice to have hope every know and then.


Sightings – Man – where to begin

lots of eiders out there


(12/1) Day with Windsor. Ferry Ride, Lane’s, Armbrust Hill, Carver’s Pond – I can honestly say I have never had a bad time with Mike Windsor, and when he came up with a plan to head to Vinalhaven for some observing I felt honored to be invited. And so we went – here are some highlights –

surf scoters run fast on water
but can not walk on it

Many Bonaparte’s gull, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorants, Purple Sandpipers, Razorbill, Black-legged Kittiwake, Tree Sparrow, Northern Flicker, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Hooded Mergansers.  Good day with a good friend I’ve known since ’98.


adult bonapartes gull


Ferry Rides – (12/4) 7am to Vinalhaven -  ½ a view with wind and sun factors. – 4 Black Duck, 8 Bufflehead, 16 Old tails, 22 Common Loons, 45 Black Guillemots, Common Eider (lots), Black-legged Kittiwake (pooping), 65 Bonaparte’s Gull, 19 Surf Scoter, 2 Purple Sandpipers. Red throated loon on the way back!

first year Bonaparte's gull
nice pattern on the wing here



(12/11) – 7am to Vinalhaven – admittedly distracted while on the boat. 52 Oldtailed Ducks, 18 Common Loon, 4 Black Guillemot, 2 White-winged Scoter, 3 Red-necked Grebe, 18 Bonaparte’s Gull, 11 Razorbill, 1 black-legged kittiwake. 2 harbor porpoise, 3 bald eagle.

red-throated loon

The story here…..has been the consistent wonderful sighting of sea birds and ducks. The numbers have not been particularly overwhelming – mid-late November at this point seems like the “peak” for sightings of southerly movers, but still I have no complaints other than when there are no clouds to block the sun. Have I mentioned that before?

"nothing chills like a harbor seal"
-tad drake

Kittiwake pooping is always a pleasure, Windsor spotting razorbill and gannet, and lots of Bonaparte gulls.  And while we are at it…

black guillemots from the ferry


Grebes vs. Guillemots – We are not talking about putting one of each species in a caged ring for the ultimate “g” battle. (Grebes would win anyway, wings down! Guillemots are like little babies).  On two occasions since moving to Maine someone (two different humans both of whom should have known better) have gone out of their way to misidentify non-breeding plumaged Black Guillemots as Grebes to me. Both conversations went almost exactly the same way – and don’t worry neither were with folks from Vinalhaven.


“look at that grebe”.

“that’s actually a guillemot”.

“Well, were I come from they call them grebes”.

“well, were you come from they are wrong”.

So it goes.


Everyone should be familiar with our local Black Guillemots in their classic summer attire. Black with white wing patches (and red feet to boot!). Lookin’ sharp!

They’ll start to turn back to that look (it’s a good look on them) once the days get longer (next week!) and can be seen from the ferry molting Jan-March.

horned grebe
Non-breeding plumage for adult Black Guillemot looks similar to juvenile plumage that we start to see in August (when the juvies are out and floating about). Lots of white, but still enough black on the wings for the white patches to be distinct. Guillemots in general are short and rather stout – not judging, just describing.  They are fun birds that look buoyant.


you will never see an Alcid dive like this
Horned Grebes are the species that my two “friends” were confusing Guillemots for I suppose. In non-breeding plumage the dark of a Horned Grebes’ back extends up the back of the neck and head. It’s a classic “counter shading” look that is often selected for aquatic animals in an effort to camouflage with the sun (above) and the water (below). A profile comparison shows the Grebe with a longer, skinner neck than Guillemots. Behavior watching – grebes often/usually either jump out of the water or simply submerge like a submarine with its periscope still up to start a dive. Guillemots (and all Alcids) rotate at the surface to initiate a dive – face down and butt sticking up out of the water. Guillemots then flap underwater to swim, where the streamlined Grebes use their feet to propel themselves when swimming.


Anyway – both are around! Keep your eyes open for them!




Basin (12/11) Wharf Quarry – just two days after snow fall and tracks and trails have melted and refroze leaving sign were less distinct and enlarged, but nothing anyone would complain about. Snow fleas were by far the most abundant animal observed this day – with an approximate count of a hundred gagillion. They were everywhere!


snow fleas were just about everywhere
including in these deer tracks

Mink tracks were a treat this day – melted and looking jumbo sized. Wonder why this guy didn’t belly slide into the water? Also – White-winged Crossbill, Brown Creeper, Junco, Golden crowned kinglet, common goldeneye, and bufflehead. Good times in the Basin

(photo of mink tracks not found)



Huber Preserve – (12/4) Wolfs milk slime, Frozen Jelly Tooth, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, 45 Buffleheads, 10 Oldtailed Ducks, 4 Black Guillemots. Good time in the woods with another friend, Gabe Harp. Bufflehead’s head-popping was probably the highlight for me. But finding the frozen Jelly tooth brought back memories and is now inspiring this gallery of recent frozen jelly mushrooms and mushrooms in general. no pictures of frozen false chanterelles though. some things still are sacred.


wolf milk slime still pumping out the spores

no trip to Huber is complete without finding
a crappy dog bag strategically located
somewhere along the trail.
this is a weird dog owner. i'm not sure what the
statement is supposed to be here,
but I get it

love this frozen jelly tooth

turkey tails are always in style


chaga happens

frozen tree ears

birch seeds. not sure why they
are included here


guess who?
Off island – 12/9 - With the “warning” of 4-5 inches of snow expected to start to blanket Maine around mid-day, this bald observer made a mad dash to some local otter latrines to get a feel for the otters scene before any evidence was covered up. My time tracking the next morning would be limited, so checking the latrines might give me a focus (nothing really does) as to where to explore on the 10th as well as proved info on what the otters have been up to. You see, snow is the best for tracking, hands down (I said hands down!).  But for all the bliss and learning that snow provides about what critters were up to the night before, there are way more long-term lessons that are covered up as the frozen precipitation collects. So I went to Clark Island to check on my 4 favorite latrines out there. I was not disappointed.


spraint happens

All four latrines were active (meaning they’ve been pooped at recently), which has been pretty standard (in my observations) for the last two years. The amount and ages of sprint (ever age spraint?) deposited (spraint deposit!) indicated one otter visiting the latrines. Three of the four latrines I would describe as collecting “hefty” amounts of spraints, amounts often associated with a nearby den.

If you think about it (don’t think too hard!) using the latrine before going to bed and first thing waking up sounds like a solid idea to sleep well and keep your immediate turf marked well. (I don’t know if otters wake up to go mid-sleep, but I bet they just spraint it up right in the den!). The entry way for a den I have been watching for years now looked to have been used recently, which was nice.

kind of looks like frozen jelly tooth
but it aint!

The other two large latrines have been a mystery as to where any associated dens might be located. In my ottery experience latrines associated with dens can be right at the den opening or up to 50 feet away. So it isn’t always easy. For some reason though, things clicked on this day though and I located two new dens (new to me!) close by these marking areas. One in the roots of a stump right next to the latrine (what the heck was I looking at these years?); the other den was in shrapnel left over from an old quarry. Den habitats wild and human provided, very cool.

these piles mean somthing


The latrine by the old quarry had an interesting phenomenon. Spruce cones that had fallen within the roughly 15-15ft marking area were organized in 10 or so little stacks sprinkled throughout. Every so often I come across small piles of spruce cones in the woods that appear to have been organized, but this was an effort the Ames brothers would be proud of! I started to imagine Addison, Donny, and Danny as little squirrels “cleaning” up the woods. Of course, if the squirrels were the Ames brothers the little stacks would have all been set on fire, but that is another story (really?). Anyway, I have not found anything about squirrel cone stacking (this means something!). I even played around with the idea of otters or aliens stacking up the cones, but I think this kind of organization is beyond the grasp of otters and aliens alike (space aliens are dumb as otters!). So what’s the deal with these stacks of cones that were going to be covered in snow in just a few hours? Like crop circles and Inca roads, this obviously means something! (possibly the vaguest statement possible said with the utmost conviction). Anyway.

trail to latrine before snow....

...and after!

(12/10) – With the fresh snow waiting and its stories wanting to be told… what kind of a person would I be not to lend an ear (or an eye actually) to these lessons? In other words I went outside. Within a few minutes I was on a coyote trail, that when eventually backtracked was found to have marched right through my backyard! I love this neighborhood.   

coyote trail down the middle


I was happy to follow the coyote trail, but knew right away I was not set for that kind of adventure. Coyotes are totally cool, don’t get me wrong, but their trails can go on forever, which also is cool and a lesson unto itself. Unfortunately I didn’t have “forever” and coyotes weren’t what got me outside that Sunday morning. The trail just happened to be heading to the otter scene, so I followed. Right to the beaver dam, where trails of two otters heading “up dam” were quickly spotted.


otters going up and over the dam


frozen spraint

The “most sizable otter latrine” I have found in the marsh is located close to the dam (and happened to be my “destination” for the morning anyway!). Being creatures of habit it was no surprise to find belly slides, spraint and markings at the latrine. The two otters came out of the water separately, marked the top and then slid down the same trail to leave. I visited the four closest latrines and a single den found no sign from the night before. They possibly (most likely, probably) didn’t travel too far, so another den (to find!)  in the area is a strong possibility. We’ll keep you posted.
where the slide meets the water


otter maze
Knowing the otters headed up the dam, later in the day I visited the only latrine I have found below the dam (limited options below the dam!), and being creatures of habit of they visited the spot the night before (of course)! This latrine is much less steep (less steeper? Seemingly steepless?) than the one above the dam, and yet the snow was deep enough that the otters made some meandering belly slides to and from the “high point”. For me, the best part was seeing where one otter had cracked through the ice like an ice breaker to shore and then started belly sliding up hill.

ice breaker - where the otter broke
through and headed up shore

it was a slippery trail


(12/13) return to latrines – three days later, and a full afternoon of rain the day before (12/12), I headed over to the latrines to look for fresh sign. I wasn’t the only one who thunked that it was a good idea to visit them – super fresh and sharp looking otter tracks showed where the 2 otters came out of the water and then scampered to the top of the latrine.

I like these three tracks pointing in separate directions


Fresh sign turned up on visits to 4 other dens above the dam, none of which showed any activity when visited a few days prior. So the otters were/had been in the area for a few days now. Will keep returning (obviously) and will keep reporting (hopefully with more condensed prose).

fresh scrapes

(12/13) walk home through the woods. – if you asked Leif if he likes to hike he will balk and contemplate for a bit before ever so politely answering “no”. If you ask him if he likes to go on adventures his reply will be enthusiastically positive. And with that in mind, we don’t hike home afterschool through the woods, we go on adventures in the woods afterschool (and just happen to end up at home at the end). Anyway, Leif led the adventure the other day and took us on “a path less traveled” which turned up a Barred Owl pellet (first found on our property!) and 6 of these caterpillars on the snow in the yard. Good adventure!


we ended up finding 14 caterpillars over a couple of afternoons
Since then the frozen caterpillar on snow phenomenon has been observed another time since. My guess is that these are caterpillars that didn’t have their spraint together enough to make a cocoon (I mean, how hard can that be? Its instinct darned it!), were caught off guard with the sudden change in temperatures (it got a lot colder quicker, or I like to say – the weather finally got really good), froze up in the trees and then were blown off by the semi-consistent breeze that comes off the marsh. So far no one has come up with a better speculation, but I haven’t talked to anyone else the phenom occurrence.

funny, my nickname in high school was white fudge

Limited edition foods – What would this section be without oreos and pop tarts! What would life be without oreos and pop tarts – classic New Jersey breakfast!


sugar cookie pop tarts come with hilarious cartoons
drawn on them - "edible" cartoons

Leif – loving life and turning 9! Good year for the boy, sets up for a good 10th year as well!


rosy was relentless with the kisses
We’ll see you out there!