This gray squirrel spotted in Bar Harbor recently is leucistic. That means its coloring is partially white, but not completely white like an albino. PHOTO COURTESY OF TAMMY PACKIE

Nature: To ID a hawk, note size, tail, behavior



The north winds still blow and we’re still getting some snow and some of us wish it would end… and are looking ahead to the arrival of spring. No matter the snow, ice or whatever happens, nature has its own timetable and moves at its own pace. Those of us who pay attention to the natural world around us and are curious about what local mammals and birds are up you always have something to see and enjoy or to marvel at.

Some local residents and column readers recently found a hawk sitting in their barn, and even though they took a photo of the bird it was difficult to identify correctly. Experts don’t always agree. It appears to be an accipiter, a group of hawks including the sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk and northern goshawk. One suggestion was also a northern harrier.

Trying to solve this mystery is not always easy or possible. Even the experts argue over identification many times. The fact that the bird was in a barn (probably after the pigeons there) is a good clue. Size is always important — compare a hawk to the size of a robin, crow or sparrow. Also note the length of the tail and what kind of a beak the bird has. Coloring is probably the last helpful hint. Age and sex can make a big difference in identification. Always be willing to accept that you will never know what you saw. Harriers are seen here sometimes at this season but they are not particularly common, nor are they apt to go in a building.

Any large hawk flying over the fields, even snow-covered ones as we now have, could be a harrier. Look especially for the white patch, which is quite noticeable, at the base of the tail. This bird glides gracefully over local fields as it hunts for mice and the like. They are excellent and beautiful fliers. Watch for the dark trailing edge on the bird’s wings. It is very distinctive. When spring comes it is an interesting sight to watch on flying over a field then quickly swoop to ground, grab a mouse and move on. The marsh hawk is fun to watch.

A small number of arctic terns have been reported in the area. This is a wee bit early according to records that say mid-May is when they may be seen. A few terns can be seen here but never in abundance as those seen in Florida.

My favorite sightings have been of Caspian terns in southern Florida. These larger terns are the largest of the terns in North America. It may sound brutal, but the parent birds often have to beat and peck their young ones in the nest to keep them safe from predators.

When seeing this you really wonder what they are doing and why! Actually, this is for the young ones’ survival; if they roam about and go near another nest the adults there will kill them and eat them. The Caspian tern is quite large, almost gull-like, and it sports a black cap.

An interesting visitor has been being seen locally in the form of a leucistic gray squirrel. When a mammal or a bird has a white head, tail, wings or whatever that is not its normal coloring it is called leucistic. If it is totally white with pink eyes it is an albino form. This condition can appear in any creature with or without wings.

Gray squirrels can be wild and nervous but also very friendly if you find them in a city park where they are often fed. Now that winter is here, their fur here is more grayish and heavily frosted with white-tipped hairs. Sometimes, as is the case at certain island feeders, the whole tail is white. Color phases in squirrel can include blacks, reds and albinos. Color blendings most often take place in the spring and fall.

Although gray squirrels are tree dwellers, they come to the ground to feed and for short distances they can run about 10 miles an hour and they can leap about ten feet. They eat a variety of nuts, seeds, mushrooms, insects, young birds and eggs, and plants. They also chew on antlers of deer left in the woods and will gnaw on the shell of a dead turtle. Their personalities and antics brighten up many a winter’s day.

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

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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