A raven

Ravens make ‘comfort sound’

Rain, snow, ice, sun, balmy breezes and frigid temperatures — it’s February! The courtship of many mammals and even birds is well underway. Great horned owls often sit on their nest of eggs in a snowstorm. Eagles can be seen doing their courtship flights over our island, and this can be quite amazing to watch. If you listen carefully to the calls of ravens, you may hear the changes they make when they are wooing their chosen mates. It is said that ravens tend to mate for life.

The raven is our largest song bird, and normally its voice is loud and raucous, but when the male is wooing his mate, his voice can become quite musical. Young ravens also make some pleasant sounds. The raven’s courtship is fun to watch, for they fly wingtip to wingtip, all the while swooping and tumbling in the sky. When sitting side by side on a branch, a courting couple will give each other bits of food and gently preen each other’s feathers. If you happen to be near enough, you’ll hear some of their loving sound. It’s called a “comfort sound.” We once had an injured raven living in a cage nearby, and it was amazing to hear the different sounds it could make. Some were raucous, but others were quite pleasant, and some very human as he copied our conversations. His use of words seemed to indicate quite a bit of intelligence.

A friend told me about a nice sighting of an otter eating a fish on the edge of a local pond. He and his son had gone out to find a good place for skating and had a special surprise of seeing the otter enjoying his fish catch. Frigid water temperatures and frigid air temperatures do not bother an otter, for they are covered with soft, warm fur.

Otters are out and about all year, and you will find them in both salt and freshwater, but they prefer the freshwater of our lakes, ponds and rivers. We do not have sea otters on Mount Desert Island. Any otter you see on this island is a river otter. At this time of year, it is fun to look for their slides in the snow near the edge of a pond, for they like to slide on their bellies into the water. A slide can be in snow or mud. Since otters are large mammals, from 3-4 feet long — not including the tail — and weighing up to 30 pounds, look for a wide, packed down area on a steep bank leading into deep water. Although it’s nice to think their mud or snow slides are just for fun, otters do also use them for moving about more easily, especially in snow. The otter’s hind foot has five fully webbed toes with claws at the tip and is about 4.3 to 5.9 inches long, big compared to the foot of its weasel cousin.

The big fire on MDI in 1947 that burned thousands of acres had a great influence on the otter and the beaver population. The mature forests of spruce and fir were replaced with much more diverse woods, that included aspen, birch and other deciduous species, as well as conifers. With more food to their liking, beaver numbers increased, which in turn increased the number of ponds providing stable water levels year-round. Those ponds also provided a good supply of year-round food for otters in the form of fish and amphibians. Otters may use abandoned beaver lodges for denning and resting sites, or they may enlarge a muskrat house or a woodchuck burrow near their den.

If you visit the transfer station, often referred to as the “dump,” be sure to look at the gulls flying and standing about on the ground or roof tops. You often get to see some visiting winter gull from the far north that has come into the area looking for food. Such visiting gulls could be the glaucous or Iceland gulls. These two gulls can be expected in small numbers as late as March. Check your bird guide for special identification of these larger gulls. They are visitors from the very far north in the winter, as are the snowy owls and great gray owls.

When you’re out hiking about in the snow or in the woods these winter days, be sure to notice some of the interesting lichens and mosses growing on the ground or on the bark of a tree. A friend of mine found interesting lichen, and his curiosity sent him to the books to identify it. Its Latin name is Cladonia rei, called “cup lichen” by some. Most likely, you could pass it by and never see it, but under a good microscope, it is beautiful and fascinating. If you have access to a microscope, try examining some of the many lichens you can readily find now anywhere on MDI. If you can’t figure out what it is, send me a photo, and I’ll get some expert to help us. A very helpful book is a big one called “Macrolichens of New England,” by James Hinds and Patricia Hinds. A local library may have one or can certainly get it for you.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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