Nature: Snowy owls are a winter-long favorite 



A flock of evening grosbeaks enjoy a feast under a reader’s feeder. PHOTO COURTESY OF ELLEN AKESON

A flock of evening grosbeaks flew in with a flourish to an island feeder this past week, making the yard and the area beneath the feeder very colorful with yellow, black and white. This is definitely the time for them to be more and more visible. They are bold, brash and beautiful. 

Friends in Southwest Harbor sent me a photo of an old, very dead tree on their property at the edge of their woods that clearly, to me, was ripped apart by a pileated woodpecker. Once you get familiar with their work, you know it right away. These birds really make the chips fly! They stick with their project, for they know inside that dead tree is lots of good food for them. They have acute hearing, so they know what they are after and do not do exploratory surgery. If the tree is basically healthy, it will recover, and the woodpeckers will have had a good meal. 

The pileated woodpecker is the largest one living here and sports flaming red crest. Its flight is an undulating one. Once you learn to recognize it, you will often see them fly across a road on this island. I see them quite often flying from the mountainover the road and then over Echo Lake. 

There have been more and more reports these days of snowy owl sightings on our mountaintops. This northern owl is a favorite one to look for all winter. It is a daytime hunter, which is helpful. You are very likely to see one either on local mountaintops, on the beach or near the Trenton airport area. They aren’t found in the woods, for there are no trees at their home base in the Arctic. The first snowy owl I ever saw was on the beach with the wind blowing its white feathers in such a way that I thought it was an old newspaper at first. 

If their favorite food (lemmings) was abundant this particular season up north, more young birds may come south looking for food. A few years ago, snowy owls were even seen as far south as Florida. That’s very unusual. 

This owl eats miceratsshrewssquirrels and other such creatures. In true owl style, after it eats and swallows the food wholeit spits out a pellet of undigestible items, such as fur and bones. It may sound a little gory, but it really isn’t. Scientists find these pellets full of information on the bird’s food habits.  

If you are very careful in examining the pellets and the bones, you can piece together what mammals they have been eating. A very smart young student in one of the classes my late husband taught did an excellent science project in college and discovered exactly what the bird had been eating by putting the pellet bones back together. It was on display at a small museum in New York for years. 

If we get any bad storms at this time of year, go out exploring on the local beaches and shorelines to see what the high waters have brought in. Many small birds even get swept in and you can help them get back in the water. Lend a helping hand when you are ableSend me photos to help in identification. 

After a good breeding season in the north, double-crested cormorants sweep down the coast in great numbers. At such times, they may fly close over land or water. Such flights continue when winter is in full swing. The name double-crested comes from the fact that this cormorant has two tufts of white feathers on each side of the crown during the breeding season. 

You may have noticed that some of your windows these days are covered with flies. After a few days, you find dead flies with nothing left but a skeleton and a powdery substance under the fly. This is because they have been attacked by a fungus. Flies are not everyone’s favorite subject, but if you read about them in a Fabre book, you may see them in a different light.  

Watch along the shore now for the shorebird called a yellowlegs. On a dump run, look for glaucous gulls in among the regular gulls. Watch the rafts of whitewinged scoters off Bar Island. Cardinals brighten any day, and they are here all winter. Enjoy wherever you are on this island. 

Send any questions or observations to [email protected]yahoo.com. 

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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