When you see a saw-whet …

A friend’s wildlife story this week brought an old song to mind-“Who that knockin’ at my door?” In this case, it was a surprising answer, for when she looked out the door, there was a bobcat right there chasing after mice! This has indeed been a very difficult winter for wildlife needing and wanting to eat mice and other rodents that now can move about in safety since the snow is so deep. Predators seeking food are having a tough time. Such predators include owls, hawks, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, bobcats, eagles and gulls, among others. It was an unusual sighting but definitely an exciting one, and one I would like to have experienced. In most winters, bobcat sightings are not so many, but this year is quite unusual with so many storms occurring. The calendar says spring, but it’s hard to convince anyone of that at the moment.

A recent phone call from a column reader asked me where sawwhet owls hang out during the day. He had found one outside his garage. Saw-whet owls are nighttime hunters, and they usually spend the daytime hours sitting on a branch in a bush somewhere. It would be quite visible and not particularly secluded, but since they are quite small and would just fit on your hand from wrist to fingertips, they can easily go unnoticed unless you see their eyes looking at you. They sit very still and look unreal. Don’t ever let this statue-like behavior fool you into trying to touch one. They will grab you quickly with their talons. You can, however, take photos, and that doesn’t bother them. A friend last year sent me a photo taken one day in Somesville of a saw-whet owl perched on top of a mullein plant stalk right next to the path, and the owl never moved as people passed by.

These small owls hunt at night and are frequently seen in your headlights as they fly in front of your car while you drive along. The car lights may for a moment show them a mouse scurrying across the road. A number of saw-whets nest on this island; they are a resident owl and seen year round. The sound this owl makes is like that made by a truck backing up. It’s a monotonous sound you can frequently hear on this island once you learn to recognize it. Whenever you are out after dark in the stillness of the night, listen for this sound.

Another report I received this week concerned a small white mammal with a black-tipped tail crossing the road at high speed. From the description, I identified it as a long-tailed weasel. These mammals are very efficient and voracious hunters, and at this time of year are white with a black-tipped tail. It is similar in looks but larger than an ermine, a smaller weasel also living here. Weasels are active year round and are mostly night hunters. They are actually found from southern Canada to Peru and from the seacoast to timberline.

These weasels are very agile, can get around easily and can swim if necessary. They don’t usually stay in their den for long except when they are caring for their helpless young. Their newborns are born pink, naked and blind with just a few hairs. A young couple I know locally had one visit their chickens earlier this year, and that can be a problem. It was battle between man and beast. When he cornered the weasel in with the chickens, the battle ensued. One chicken was lost, but the weasel did not live to hunt again. You really have to build a secure cage for your chickens if a weasel is in the neighborhood. They are born to hunt expertly. Penned chickens are a big temptation for a carnivore, but you can outwit them so life goes on for both.

Last week, I asked about any woodcock sightings, and sure enough, I heard of a woodcock being seen in Southwest Harbor this past week. It was doing its courtship dance in spite of the deep snow everywhere. In some yards, there actually is grass and a bit of mud showing, so I suppose they are able to get worms to eat here and there, but it can’t be an easy time for them. This is the time when these short and chubby shore birds return to our area and get busy with their courtship and nest building.

Their courtship routine is quite comical, and it is often called a ‘dance.’ Male woodcocks strut around on the ground, usually at the edge of the woods or any similar place, then fly high in the air, sing a lovely song and return to the place it started. This behavior is all done to impress their chosen lady woodcocks and goes on for hours.

Woodcocks are short and chunky, and their eyes are placed high on their foreheads. There is a reason for this, for when the bird pokes its very long bill into a muddy location, the eyes stay dry. The bird probes about with its bill searching for a fat earthworm to eat. The bill is about two-to-three inches long and hinged about halfway down. While feeding, woodcocks probe deep into muddy spots for worms. They push their long bills down into the soft ooze right up to their high-set eyes. With the bill buried in the mud, the bird is able to hinge it open and seize the worm or other edible creature. If the food morsel is not too large, the bird does not have to pull its bill out of the mud in order to eat it. It seems to suck the food out of the mud. This is probably how it got its nickname ‘bog sucker.’ With such a manner of eating, the woodcock is very vulnerable to ground predators They also have been seriously affected by the destruction of fields and open areas where they dance. Listen for them any night now. The sound they make is a sort of a nasal buzzing or ‘bzeeeeping’ sound. You probably can listen to it online.

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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