In spite of chilly temperatures and winter weather, this is courtship time for some of our wildlife creatures. Great horned owls often start their courtship even now. Their nests may have eggs in them in February, and the mother owl often gets covered with snow as she incubates her eggs. A clutch of usually three eggs is often laid in the first part of February. An old crow’s nest may be used, or as in one case I saw near Corea, the old nest of an osprey changed occupants and became the nesting place for great horned owls. The nesting pole was quite near the road at the edge of a small pond, and it made for was good viewing right from your car. It was great fun to be able to see the owls so closely and so well.
These owls are big birds! Think of them as from your elbow to the tips of your fingers in height.
Sometimes you can get excellent views of an owl if you hear crows “mobbing” somewhere nearby. Follow the mobbing sounds, and you may come upon crows and other birds making lots of noise and trying to annoy the owl so that it moves. The owl will often sit for quite awhile on a limb of a big tree, and then at the point that it can’t stand the annoyance, it flies off to a new and hopefully quiet spot farther away. The owl likes to sleep and rest during the day and then go out hunting at dusk and on through the night. It earns it nickname “tiger of the night.”
The hooting of a great horned makes me think of big dog barking way in the distance in a repetitive, low voiced “hoo hoo hoo, hoo, hoo” pattern. You can find samples on the internet. The barred owl‘s call sounds as if it is saying “who cooks, who cooks for youuuuuuuuuall” The calls are very different.
Courtship is in the air now and into February for red foxes, the only fox living on Mount Desert Island. The two representatives of the dog family living here on our island are the red fox and the coyote. The red fox is quite commonly seen all year-round. Just recently, a reader sent me a lovely photo of a red fox crossing in front of him on a carriage road hike. They are quite curious about seeing you. This attractive mammal resembles a small collie except for the color. Males tend to be bigger than females and weigh in at from about 8-12 pounds. Foxes, covered with long, silky reddish fur, are quite beautiful. Even in sub-zero weather, this mammal sleeps outside. Its den is mainly used for its pups. Except for denning, these mammals are mostly solitary.
One of my best views of a fox was from inside the house as I looked out the windows on a small field. A lone red fox was out early in the morning hunting for mice, and luck was with me that day when the fox leapt into the air in a characteristic fashion, which is very graceful, and it caught the mouse. Any ballerina would have envied and appreciated the fox’s movements that day. Don’t, however, be tempted to feed foxes, for it usually is a death sentence for the mammal. Such a fox gets too tame and trusting, and this usually results in the animal’s death when it meets an unfriendly human or encounters a fierce dog. Enjoy watching foxes but don’t feed them.
Good times to see them are early in the morning on meadows and fields, and on any island road after dark. Winter encounters on snow-covered park trails and carriage roads are quite common. Be alert to what is around you wherever you are.
Ice fishermen brave this month’s temperatures to indulge in their favorite sport this time of year. In January, ice fishermen head out on the ice-covered ponds and lakes to catch salmon, trout and pickerel. They are often watched by feathered companions hoping to share in the catch. Eagles often sit in a nearby tree watching, waiting and hoping. Occasionally, such a bird will sneak in and grab a fish laid out on the ice or perhaps a pickerel thrown its way. Fish are swimming beneath the ice, and the fisherman hope to snag something.
My son brought in a beautiful salmon one day that was filled with smelt. On another winter’s day, he had a fish with its stomach filled with small waterbugs called back-swimmers. These backswimmers grow to about one-half-inch long and usually are light colored on the back and dark underneath. They swim upside down so their underside is on the top. They use their legs like oars, hence their name. A film of air is carried on their undersides when they dive, sort of like a scuba diver with a tank. Do not pick up backswimmers with your bare hand, for they can bite.
If you have starlings in your neighborhood, keep watching for them about now. Into February, their dark bills will turn bright yellow. These birds are serious pests in this country. They were introduced into this country at a whim by some nonthinking person many years ago, and they have thrived. In Europe, their native territories, they are not a problem, but in this country, they have been responsible for the severe depopulation of bluebirds, flickers and other native birds. They are survivors and can live anywhere and on most anything. Their numbers have increased to alarming levels. Populations of our native bluebirds and flickers have decreased dramatically because of the starlings and house sparrows.
Occasionally I get reports of someone having tufted titmice at their feeders. This mite of a bird is a nice one to see either alone or in with a small flock of chickadees, nuthatches, creepers and kinglets. Titmice tend to be more vocal in the winter, which is not so with most of our birds. They do like to chatter. Even though their normal food choice would be insects, they also eat acorns, beechnuts, corn and some wild berries. This little bird used to be a strictly southern bird, but not so in 2017. Keep looking for one at your feeder here on Mount Desert Island.