Nature: Squirrel boom led to more owls



Barred owls seem to be abundant this year. There are many reports in Maine of this owl’s appearance.

One sighting recently was especially interesting; it showed a barred owl trying to get to a caged bird in someone’s house. According to the experts the increase in owls is due to the unusual abundance of squirrels last year and the year before. When prey is abundant the birds lay more eggs and successfully raise more baby owls. The bumper crop of barred owls seen this year is the result.

A few years ago lemmings were profuse in the far north and snowy owls had large families. That resulted in young snowy owls spreading far and wide down the east coast during winter, even as far as Florida!

The barred owl is about as tall as from your elbow to your wrist. It has a round head and big, dark eyes. You can frequently see it sitting on a lower limb of a tree, resting and looking right at you.

There are no ear tufts on its round head as with the much larger great horned owl. If you listen carefully on these March nights you probably will be able to hear one hooting what sounds to many as if the bird is saying “Who cooks for you, who cooks for youuuuuuu-all?”

If you are good at making owl calls you can get in a conversation with one!

Barred owls eat an assortment of mammals such as rats, hares, chipmunks, shrews, voles, weasels, large beetles, crickets, frogs, spiders and a few fish.

Although most owl eyes are yellow, barred owls have deep brown, almost black eyes. They nest early, sometimes in late February but have only one brood a year. Their wings appear short, but they fly gracefully, on silent wings like giant feathered moths. To see one in flight is a special experience.

I even captured a barred owl on my video camera this week near my house eating mice. The bird was hunting on the ground and I could see it grab a mouse and swallow it!

The next night raccoons arrived and were in the very same spot hunting for something else. There is a lot of activity during the night in our out-of-doors as creatures hunt for food. I’m happy to get a glimpse of who is going where near my house. A woodcock doing its sky dance would win first prize for me.

Skunk cabbage is showing itself and is often a first sign of spring for many. The skunk cabbage actually proclaims spring even in the winter. The egg shaped flower cluster is surrounded by a shell-like reddish-purple sheath streaked with yellow. You won’t see those distinctive large green leaves of this plant until much later after the flower has gone to seed. The flower sheath is very beautiful.

As you search diligently for the first skunk cabbage blooms of spring, look for the reddish sheath in wet areas, along the roadsides or any other wet spot. The lovely color should attract your attention. Inside this colorful sheath is the egg-shaped flower cluster. To see the actual flower you have to peek inside the sheath.

It is the leaves of the skunk cabbage that have the skunky smell when they have been crushed. Among the first visitors to this unique plant are the flesh flies, for they seek out plants with an unpleasant odor and the color of decaying meat.

Spiders have learned that these flesh flies like to visit skunk cabbages, so they build webs over the entrance of the spathe in order to trap them. Sometimes some woodland birds will even nest in the hollow of the spathe.

From the moment spring begins until the first frosts arrive this island has a large of variety of wildflowers giving pleasure and beauty to the area. Flower watchers have an advantage over other wildlife observers since flowers do not run or fly off at your approach.

The first call of the red-winged blackbird is a welcome sound to me after experiencing this past long and snowy Maine winter. Any mild or spring-tinged day in March with a red-winged blackbird singing his liquid and melodious ”konk-er-ee” from some roadside marsh officially announces to me’ that winter is over. The males arrive first and call loudly as they check out territories and gather by the dozens in tree tops in a red-wing chorus. When the females arrive a few weeks’ later the birds will get down to serious pairing off and the choosing of nest sites.

Females are quite different from the males in appearance. They are like dark sparrows, speckled and striped with brown. These new arrivals may get a frosty welcome and have to face a few snowflakes, but to survive these birds will eat weed seeds, and insects they can find, as well as a few bird feeders. Mid-May will be the time for nesting on this island.

Keep your eyes looking up these spring days, for it is time for many returning migrants to be arriving. Red-tailed hawks should be in our skies this month. Vultures are already being seen here. When I step out on my porch there are bird songs in the air. Kingfishers are returning now and Grackles will be arriving later this month.

Send any questions or observations to teahousetrio@wildblue.net or call 244-3742.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to teahousetrio@wildblue.net or call 244-3742.

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