Turkey vultures, eagles easy to I.D.

fox sparrowThe sound of ukuleles playing “Blue Skies” wafted over the rocks at Seawall this weekend as local musicians enjoyed a welcome, warm and sunny day. Gulls rose in the air, and there flying over us was a beautiful adult bald eagle. Spring has finally arrived on Mount Desert Island!

When you are at the shore and notice that the gulls suddenly rise in the air, look up, and you’ll find that an eagle has arrived on the scene. Birds on the water feel safer when they are in the air with the large raptor. We are so fortunate in this area to see eagles frequently that we forget that they are very special birds and have at times been in real danger of extinction. With six-foot wingspreads, black bodies, and white heads and tails, they are impressive.

Turkey vultures are large and impressive, but their bald red heads and habits do not seem quite as lovable as eagles, even though eagles have some personality traits that humans should avoid. Eagles are often lazy and prefer to steal an osprey’s food instead of fishing for their own.

In the air, you can easily tell these two very large birds apart if you notice how they hold their winds and fly. Eagles hold their wings horizontally flat out to the side and soar about high overhead. Turkey vultures have their wings held slightly tipped up, forming a dihedral, and at the tips of the wings, the feathers are slightly separated. Turkey vultures also tip back and forth as if on unsteady wings. They are excellent fliers, however, and very expert at locating a carcass on the ground. They keep watch over this until it is “ripe” enough to eat and then fly down to enjoy the feast. Their heads are bald so that when one sticks it into a rotting carcass, there are no feathers to get dirty. Nature has every little detail planned for each creature’s way of life.

Many fox sparrow reports have been sent to me. This sparrow is a favorite of many, for it is very beautiful and has good manners. The sparrow “tribe” is a big one and some are difficult to tell apart. The fox sparrow is one you notice and recognize easily. Its two outstanding characteristics are its large size, rufous tail and heavily striped breast. A naturalist friend of mine described is as being “a runner-up in the sparrow family beauty show.” It has a habit of vigorously scratching away in dead leaves and really making them fly. This sparrow will even scratch away in the snow like this as it searches for insects and seeds. They hop about and kick backwards with both feet. This is fun to watch.

Fox sparrows are free spirits from the far north. It is only in early spring that we see them reappear here as they head north to their breeding grounds. Sometimes, if you are very lucky, you’ll get to hear them make their flute-like song in the spring when they leave us to fly to the wilderness areas of Labrador, Saskatchewan and Alaska to nest.

Neighbors of mine living on the shore have been enjoying watching a small flock of surf scoters. Usually, these sea ducks are not easily visible from land, but a favorite food under the water must have lured them in closer this time. This black sea duck has a very colorful bill. My friends watched them through binoculars, so they were sure of what they were seeing. This duck’s bill is thick and is very brightly colored in orange, yellow and white. Take a moment to look this one up: it’s quite unusual and beautiful.

Surf scoters dive under water to catch mussels and crustaceans to eat as well as some insects and plants. They are not usually seen in sheltered waters. They prefer to dive through breaking surf. Large flocks of them gather together for the fall migration. From our shoreline, we more often see the white-winged scoter. This scoter has a white wing patch, and the male bird also has a white mark around the eye. This sea duck feeds on mussels, clams and scallops in water less than 20 feet deep. They often fly in long line formation close to the water.

Some members of my family were out kayaking one day recently and found a spot where they could see hundreds of sand dollars under the water. Sand dollars are not “found money” on the shore. The name comes from the fact that they fancifully resemble the shape of our once common silver dollar coin. I remember as a child always being very excited to find one whenever I went to the beach.

Sand dollars are filter feeders, taking in organic particles wafting to the mouth located in the center of the body’s underside. Armed with a set of five teeth, it can scrape algae off rocks. Each sand dollar is either male or female, but you cannot tell them apart from external appearance. Like many other sea creatures, they release into the water sperm and eggs that join and develop into free-swimming larvae. As hard as it is to believe, the sand dollar larvae changes into a small sand dollar in about an hour and then sinks to the ocean floor. While in the planktonic phase, they are swept many miles along the shore by ocean currents. For years, sand dollars have been used as amulets and ornaments. They generally live only a few years.

Large flocks of robins are seen all over the island once again. It really is spring.

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



Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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