Crows are talkative birds, and if you listen to them, you can often tell what is going on in their lives. My son was working near the shore this past week when his attention was drawn to raucous calling from crows down on the beach in Bernard. Right away, he knew they had something special that got them so upset, so he and his sons went to check it out.
Sure enough, on the beach sat a handsome great gray owl, the largest owl that visits here. Our resident great horned owl is a large owl, but it measures 22 inches in length. The great gray is 27-32 inches in length. Its wing spread approaches 5 feet. Our other large owl visitor is the snowy owl, but it is only 23 inches in length.
Great gray owls are considered rare visitors here, which means that they have only been reported fewer than five times. That statistic may have to change, for two were reported last winter as well and seen by many people.
Whatever brings them here now, it is a rare treat to see one. They are a true bird of the far Northwest. They eat primarily small mammals and crows. This last fact may explain why the flock of crows was upset about its presence.
This owl is very handsome with its large, round head and huge facial disks from which its huge, yellow eyes peer out at you. They have no ear tufts.
Since these owls live far from human habitation, they tend to not be particularly afraid of humans and will often just sit there and look at you from not far away. Have your camera ready for a great opportunity. I remember the first one I saw here on this island, for it was sitting on a fence post in Bass Harbor not far from the road, and in spite of all the visitors that came to look at it, the bird stayed perched there all day. Last winter, a friend came upon one sitting on a carriage road near Eagle Lake, and it never moved. The great gray owl hunts in the daytime.
The greater scaup is a good duck to try and see now. This bird is stocky, and its head rather round with a greenish gloss. The bird has a pale blue bill and is often nicknamed a “bluebill” by duck hunters. You can see them in large flocks in the waters around Mount Desert Island January through March, for it is the prime time to see them locally. Most of them have left the area by May.
Ducks are “precocial” birds, meaning that they come into this world with eyes open and already wearing an insulation of natal down. Because they are born this way, they have sort of jump start on survival. Many birds arrive blind and naked and need lots of prenatal care in order to survive, A duckling or several ducklings may be abandoned or orphaned by their mother and still get along and survive. A federal game warden friend of ours once told us that a duck has a 50-50 chance of survival without its parents after hatching. They learn from watching other such birds or just discovering food on their own and staying out of trouble. A mother duck, however, does teach her young how to feed and survive dangers.
Tree sparrows should be at your feeders now. There are many sparrows that we get to see, but the tree sparrow is the one with a central dark spot on its breast and its rufous crown. Look for its two-toned bill: the lower part is yellow and the upper part dark. They tend to mostly feed on the ground but do also come on your feeder for seeds. This sparrow is mostly seen in the winter.
We are now in February, when weather can be very fickle, freezing cold one day and warm and sunny on another. Frigid winds and swirling snow keep many indoors for a while yet; this month will have many moods. Many small mammals enjoy the safety of running unseen beneath the snow. Shrews even hunt in sub-zero temperatures, for no matter what time of the year it is, they must eat continuously to stay alive. Because of their secretive habits and small size, shrews are not usually seen unless a cat kills one and brings it home. Shrews are very beneficial in their ability to catch mice, and compared to cats, they do a superior job of killing their prey. If a shrew comes into your house, it is on a mighty mission to catch mice and will leave when the job is done.
Shrews are mouse-like mammals with long, pointed snouts, short legs and tiny eyes often hidden under short, velvety fur. Here on Mount Desert Island, four different shrews are found. They are the masked shrew, northern shrew, pigmy shrew and the short-tailed shrew. The pigmy shrews are the smallest animals in the world, weighing only two ounces. They are reddish brown or grayish above and smoky gray below. They spend much of their time under old stumps, rotting logs and among the ground litter of sedges, ferns and heavy spruces and pine trees bordering water. These tiny mammals are fast moving and give off a powerful musk. All shrews are secretive. Welcome them as neighbors or guests in your house.