Squirrels and eagles and shrikes, oh my!

It gave me great pleasure to hear from several column readers that they got to see flying squirrels at their feeders this week after reading my column. They had no idea that these appealing mammals were visiting them regularly until they turned the lights on outside and watched them glide into the feeders and enjoy a good meal. Flying squirrels are not bothered by the lights so you can enjoy watching them. They are especially fond of peanut butter.

If you are interested in the natural world on this island, even a ride to the dump can be exciting. As we drove into the dump, there were three handsome bald eagles sitting in the trees nearby, and because these big birds of prey were there, the air was swirling with gulls hoping to avoid being their target. You have probably noticed at the shore that, whenever you see the gulls rise up and fly around in the air, there is usually an eagle or two in the nearby sky. Birds sitting on the water or shore make an easy target for them.

At the dump I thought it quite funny to see a smaller tree nearby in which half a dozen crows were sitting in the branches, all of them facing the eagles. Crows are at least as intelligent as primates and possibly as intelligent as children. And yet I have seen eagles, crows and ravens all eating a dead seal, but there was definitely no doubt as to which bird was dominant. Crows sometime get too close and end up being eaten as well. They often push their luck a little too far.

Even tiny birds will defend their nesting territories when they have young nearby. I was near the Breakneck Pond area one day where kingbirds had a nest. When an eagle flew over the spot, the male kingbird, only a mite of a bird compared to the large eagle, flew right up to it and annoyed the eagle with repeated jabs from its beak until the eagle flew off. Even hummingbirds will try to chase them away .Often the eagle is only briefly annoyed and chooses to ignore the whole episode.

Every time it snows, take time to get out and see what tracks you can find in the snow around your home. Tracks are not always easy to identify and you need to take careful note of the pattern of the track, the size as compared to some familiar item such as a ruler or your own foot. These clues are very important. Look for a pad or toenails, foot or tail drag marks, and location where you saw it (near water, trees, near a hole in the ground, etc.). An excellent track book is “Mammal Tracks and Signs” by Mark Elbroch. It’s slightly expensive but excellent. Hopefully a local library has a copy. This book is the best I’ve seen to date. Also take a photo of the track with some item near it that everyone is familiar with. I might be able to help figure out what it is, and I have many experts to help me, so you will get an answer.

A noisy duck on the water this month is the beautiful Long-Tailed Duck, formerly known as the Old Squaw, with its pie pattern and long needle-pointed tail on the male. Its Latin name, Clangula hyemalis, means “noisy winter duck” and the bird lives up to its name by “talking” and gabbing wherever it gathers or flies about. These attractive ducks nest on the tundra of the sub-Arctic regions but they winter off the coast of Mount Desert Island and as far south as the coast of the Carolinas. A favorite place of mine to see them is from the vantage of the Manset Dock. There I can watch them swimming underwater and hear them “talking” to each other. Go there on a foggy day and listen for them gabbling out in the fog.

These ducks are medium-sized and chunky sea ducks. Whatever the stage of his plumage, the male’s long tail identifies him. As he searches for special morsels of food, he sits low in the water with his head erect and his tail either well elevated or lowered for a moment. These handsome ducks fly low over the water in small flocks in irregular formation with many twistings and turnings.

Before these interesting ducks leave the area to nest far to the north they start their courtship antics here and they can be fun to see. I’ll alert you to when that is happening this year.

A northern shrike may make a surprise visit to your yard some winter day. Although it may be unfortunate for some bird there to be caught by this hunter, the shrike is an interesting creature and don’t begrudge the bird its lunch. The northern shrike is robin-sized with a heavy hooked beak, black mask and large white wing patches. This bird usually perches out in the open on a telephone pole or wire.

Its nickname “butcher bird” comes from its habit of hanging its catch, be it insect, mouse or bird, on a thorn as if it were a butcher skewering a hunk of beef. No doubt only older column readers will be able to remember this! A shrike’s feet are not as strong as a hawk’s, so the shrike impales its food, and then tears off the meat with its stout bill. It does kill a few birds for food in the winter but its main diet is mice and insects when available.

Send any questions, reports or photos to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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