A large hawk swooped over the field and in an instant, with great accuracy, grabbed a mouse in the grass and enjoyed its meal. As island residents watched, they could see a bit of lighter coloring near the base of the tail. From their description, I think they had enjoyed watching a marsh hawk or northern harrier catching its lunch. This graceful flier is best seen as it hunts over an open field or marsh. “Northern harrier” is the preferred name now and comes from its habit of harrying (plundering) for its prey.
This slim-winged large hawk is a beautiful one to watch as it hunts, and you usually can spot its noticeable white rump patch at the base of the tail and identify it easily. Besides rats and mice, harriers also pick up shrews, birds, frogs, and young rabbits and hares. Sometimes they also will eat carrion. Actually, any living creature within its home range is fair game.
These hawks fly low to the ground, about 20 feet up in the air, and this habit is often what attracts your attention as you look out over the marsh grasses: they are slow, erratic fliers. This hawk has excellent hearing and “knows” a mouse is below it in the grass. The bird then drops suddenly on its prey and eats it right there. Keep watching the fields and marshes on this island and you may get to see this bird hunting. You may eat your meal at home or stop at a quick-stop restaurant, but harriers put on quite a show when they look for food. Take time to observe them.
The ground is still bare here on the island, but as winter creeps up on us, we often see less wildlife moving about. However, a friend the other day had an excellent view of a small, white mammal peering at her from a rock pile near the trail she was traveling on. The creature was as interested in her as she was in it. She sent me a photo she took at that moment. The mammal was an ermine, or long-tailed weasel, wearing its beautiful white winter coat all over its body. Only its black-tipped tail contrasted with the overall white body. No matter what time of year, the tail always has a black tip. In the warmer months, the fur is brown all over except for the tip of the tail.
These mammals are very curious, and they have trouble staying out of sight for very long and just have to come out and take a better look at you. Stay very still and make a kissing sound on the back of your hand, and you’ll really get them curious. In size, they are from 12 to 18 inches long.
This weasel is always hunting for food, for it will eat one-third of its weight in food every 24 hours. Young ones may eat even more in a single night. Your best chances of seeing them are when you sit quietly along the shore on the rocks or near a woodland stream. I had a great viewing myself one sunny afternoon at Ship Harbor. I had found a “comfortable” rock seat and actually found myself dozing off in the warm sunshine. As is often the case when in such a relaxed mood, I had the feeling I was being watched, so I carefully opened my eyes a tiny bit, and there about five feet away was one of these weasels in his brown pelage looking at me. I think we both enjoyed the encounter.
At one of my son’s caretaking locations near the shore this week, he found a fairly fresh sculpin stashed carefully away under a porch in a pile of leaves. It definitely was left there by some mammal in hopes of eating it later. Sculpins are strange-looking fish, and there are several varieties. There is one sculpin popularly called a grubby or little sculpin. Its size and short, simple head spines identify it from the others.
Another member of this tribe is the sea raven, and it looks like something Dr. Seuss would have dreamed up for one of his poems! It defies casual description. To find a member of the sculpin group in a leaf pile was interesting. I suspect an otter might have found it on the beach and stashed it away for eating later. Otters are out and about along our shores as well as lakes and streams.
The river otters living here roam woodland streams, lakes, ponds and along the seashore of this island. They are always searching for something edible in the form of fish, frogs, salamanders, earthworms, small snakes and even some plants. A tasty fish certainly would be a good find for them. The big fire on MDI in 1947 that burned several thousand acres had a great influence on their population. The mature forests of spruce and fir were replaced by a much more diverse wood that included aspen, birch and other deciduous species, as well as conifers. With more food to their liking, beaver numbers increased, which in turn increased the numbers of ponds providing a stable water level year round. These ponds provided a good supply of year-round food for otters in the form of fish and amphibians. Otters may use abandoned beaver lodges for denning and resting sites. They also may use enlarged muskrat houses or woodchuck burrows for their dens.
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.