A great gray owl is mostly fluffy feathers. PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL GOOD

Great gray owl spied nearby



A great gray owl took the prize this week for the most unusual and special bird sighting this week. It was seen off island but could just as well have been seen here. Several years ago, this very large owl visited Maine, and I saw it in Bass Harbor sitting on a fence post not far from the road. I can still close my eyes and see it very clearly once again in my mind’s eye.

This owl is very large, 29 inches, and impressive looking. Its head is round, and it has large facial disks and small yellow eyes. These birds are often quite tame and a photographer’s delight when one is located. This spectacular owl is at home in northwestern Canada, boreal forests and the western mountains. It is the wanderers of its kind that reach here in a Maine winter and cause great activity among birding enthusiasts. Great gray owls are very impressive and often quite tame.

They have the special ability of being able to locate mice below the snow with their excellent hearing. One of these owls sits in a tree perch and listens for movement below the snow, perhaps even as deep as 45 centimeters! When the owl detects movement in the snow, it plunges down through the surface to capture its prey of a small mammal or a favorite rodent.

Although the great gray owl is the tallest American owl and has the largest wingspan, 53.9 inches, it is mostly a ball of fluffy feathers. Actually, great horned owls and snowy owls weigh more and have larger feet and talons. Like most owls, the great gray has excellent posture and is definitely a very special bird to see in the wild.

These owls have been negatively affected by logging and clear cutting in places where they live. We can hope to see them in the winter, and the birds are also found in Europe and Asia. When and wherever you see one, it will make the day special.

Friends out birding over in Schoodic told me of some excellent sightings of harlequin ducks. This duck is a real beauty and worth driving considerable miles to see them. They are rather small, compact ducks riding on the water, but their colors and head patterns attract your attention. Words are inadequate in describing their beauty. Look in your bird book or on the computer for nice photos of this duck so you know what to look for. Definitely have your binoculars or a scope for closer looks.

Harlequins are at home in Canada and Labrador, Newfoundland and the northern United States. In the winter, they are seen along both coasts and here on the East Coast are found off New England and sometimes as far south as Maryland.

The bird has specific requirements for nesting. It likes a fast moving stream nearby so it can dive in the clear waters for crustaceans, mussels and insect larvae. Because it is a sea duck, it is vulnerable to oil spills and such on the ocean. Take time some sunny day this winter to drive up to the Schoodic area and look for these ducks.

A Carolina wren was reported on one of the outer islands at a feeder. January and February are when you might expect a few individuals to be seen here and there. Wrens tend to be small, but the Carolina is considered a large wren at six inches, which is about one inch larger than most wrens we see here. It also has a prominent white eye brow.

Carolina wrens may drop by your feeder this time of year for an easy meal even though their more normal food would include insects, tree frogs and some vegetable matter. Like all wrens, they have a turned-up tail. This wren is one you can expect to see here in small numbers into March.

Male cardinals brighten many a wintry scene. A friend in Hulls Cove sent me a photo of a colorful male cardinal sitting in an evergreen. Also, on one of our brief snowy days, a friend took a picture of one in some snowy branches. The tropics may have more colorful species, but none are more beautiful than our cardinal, especially in a snowy or green landscape.

One day as my son was stacking wood, he thought he noticed a movement nearby and discovered he was being watched by a long-tailed weasel, the more common of the two weasels found on Mount Desert Island. This species occurs from southern Canada to Peru and lives from sea level to timber line at high elevations. Although they are mainly nocturnal, they are often seen in the daytime as they search for mice, chipmunks, birds, frogs, snakes, earthworms, insects, rats and even carrion. These elongated mammals are good swimmers and good climbers. They can easily chase a squirrel up a tree, and in their search for food, they may travel seven miles in a single night. In February, they are usually white with just a bit of black on the tip of the tail. The change from white to brown begins from mid-February to early March and should be completed by mid-April.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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