Some intrepid hikers on Cadillac Mountain this past week brought back news of owl activity up there. Live snowy owls were seen, and one snowy owl was found dead. Evidence seemed to point to a great horned owl as the predator. Great horned owls earn their nickname “Tiger of the night,” and killing and eating another owl is fair game for them. Great horned owls are nighttime hunters. Snowy owls hunt in the daytime. I can imagine the scene on a recent moonlit night on the mountain, perfect nighttime hunting for the great horned owl. A large white owl sleeping on a rock below would have been very tempting.
Wintering purple finches begin singing this month. These birds are among the most melodious of our American finches. From the top of a tree, a male purple finch pours out his ecstatic warble in an attempt to impress a female. If his chosen mate is nearby, he will launch himself into the air singing and fluttering about with quivering wings. This raspberry-colored finch is by nature a forest bird, but it has adapted readily to civilization and comes readily to feeders and dooryards. Coniferous trees and a good supply of sunflower seeds will attract these birds all year round.
Males in the winter start showing a little red in their plumage as March comes along. When the male is in his full breeding plumage, he is bright red, and he uses this bright color to impress the females. Females are brown, heavily streaked birds with a broad whitish line over the eye. They look quite like sparrows, but their bills are typically finch-like; large and stout. Although pine grosbeaks are similarly colored, the grosbeak is bigger and nearly the size of a robin.
Hairy woodpeckers are now practicing their love-tapping challenges on any hard surface that suits them. The love song, also a call for a mate, is executed in a woodpecker “drum roll.” Hairy and downy woodpeckers are frequent visitors at all island feeders throughout the year, and the two birds look much alike except in size. The hairy woodpecker is the larger bird. Side by side, you can easily see the size difference, and a close look at the bills on each bird shows plainly the bill size difference and shape. Our resident woodpeckers in size order are from large to small as follows: pileated woodpecker, black-backed three-toed woodpecker, hairy woodpecker and downy woodpecker. At other times of the year, we do see flickers, yellow–bellied sapsuckers, red-headed woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers. They come here during the year, but are not year-round residents. You are not apt to see a pileated woodpecker at your feeder, but the other woodpeckers are readily seen. Even though the yellow-bellied sapsucker is a colorful bird, you may often find just the evidence of its visit in the form of neat little holes encircling the trunks of apple trees in a field. The holes look as if a precision tool has made them. That is not the case, however, for the holes were actually made by the bird drilling on the trunk to get sap. The sapsucker eats the oozing sap, and it is also enjoyed by tiny hummingbirds and any squirrels living nearby.
I’ve heard of a few geese seen near the Trenton bridge. In recent years, they have taken up nesting in Babson Creek. They often are seen in the small pond next to the Somesville Library and in nearby waters. Another goose called the brant goose is one to look for now as well. The Trenton bridge is a good place to see them. Brant geese are smaller geese with black necks and chests. They lack the white “chin strap” of the familiar Canada goose.
This is a good time to clean your bird houses and put them up again. Courtship is moving along for many birds, and you should be ready. Loons are changing their plumage.
A friend in Southwest Harbor had a Cooper’s hawk in her yard recently, and it scattered the resident birds visiting her feeder. The Cooper’s hawk is basically a larger version of the sharp-shinned hawk. It can be difficult for beginners or laymen to tell them apart at first. Both birds are what we call accipiters. They have small heads, short wings and long tails. Notice also that the adults have barred breasts, and immature birds have streaked breasts. Another important identifications point to observe is that the Cooper’s hawk is crow sized and has a rounded bill. The sharp-shinned hawk is small and has a notched or square tail. If you think about these observation points, it will help you identify what you are seeing. Sometimes, though, the bird moves fast or you just can’t see all parts of the body.
Accipiters do not soar in circles high in the sky as some hawks do. Accipiters are woodland birds. Their flight pattern is several short quick wing beats and a sail. This behavior is very distinct.
The largest member of the accipiters living here is the magnificent goshawk. It has a wingspread of 40-47 inches and is a large, handsome hawk, definitely robust. This bird is considerably larger than a crow. The goshawk is an island resident all year. They nest on Mount Desert Island.
Arrivals any day now will include woodcocks, red-winged blackbirds, kingfishers, red-tailed hawks and grackles. I heard that the resident bear at Kisma Reserve in Trenton woke up from his winter’s nap already and was in a good mood. The most unusual warmer and clearer weather we’re experiencing is making man and beast anxious to move on with spring.
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.