Loggerhead shrike

Winter brings snowy owls

A substantial coating of ice covers my pond at this writing. It feels and looks like winter once again. Friends hiking on one of the island’s mountains found a tree stripped of its bark at one point and asked me what could have done that. Porcupines are known for removing the bark from tall trees, but I suggested it might possibly be visits from the black-backed woodpecker. When feeding, these woodpeckers cling to dead and dying spruce trees where they very carefully flake away the scales of bark in their search for wood-boring beetles. If you are out and about and see any such activity, send me a photo, and it will help to identify the creature. They are not commonly seen here but are always a possible bird to see.

Large pieces of wood flung here and there with resulting large rectangular hole in a tree usually indicate the work of the pileated woodpecker. When they work on a tree, the chips really fly. If you are lucky enough to catch the bird in the act of doing this, they are often not bothered by your presence, and you can witness their work in progress.

Occasionally in the winter, we have some interesting northern birds visiting this island. The snowy owl probably is the best known, for this owl is so large and beautiful and it often sits in exposed places. I have not received any reports yet, but they could be here now. Please let me know if you see any. The adults are very white and are normally seen on or near the ground at beaches, the airport, golf courses and other open places.

Younger birds may have black flecking on the feathers, but they still look like whitish birds, and their owl shape is very distinctive. Snowy owls are daytime fliers. These owls and others have a curious habit of swallowing their food whole and later spitting out the indigestible parts in a wad of fur and bones called a “pellet.” By examining these pellets after they have been regurgitated, you can learn a lot about what the owl has eaten. When the pellet is dry, it is no problem to examine.

One of my husband’s students kept close track of each pellet he examined and kept excellent records of what individual birds had eaten after he closely examined the pellets. He mounted and labeled his collection, and it was quite impressive. This young man went on to become a very competent scientist. For many years, the collection was on exhibit at the Pound Ridge Reservation in Pound Ridge, N.Y.

One of the naturalists I knew on my journey as a young person interested in the natural world made me a sample collection of the various kinds of trees living in New Canaan, Conn., where I grew up. It was a great way to learn to identify trees. I treasured my box of wood samples, all labeled and prepared so you could see both the bark and the inside of the wood.

A loggerhead shrike was reported near Seal Cove pond. Shrikes are usually found singly out in the open. Since they feed on songbirds, it makes us feel better that they do not fly around in a flock. Songbirds instinctively know to freeze their position or to hide when a shrike is in the area. Shrikes are their natural enemies. Shrikes have an interesting habit of skewering their catch on a thorn for later eating. This may remind older readers of this column of meat skewered on hooks in olden butcher shops. Who remembers sawdust on the floor and hunks of meat hung from the ceiling?

The loggerhead shrike is a large-headed bird with a stout conical bill and short wings. Its color scheme is black and gray. The loggerhead shrike is considered a rare bird on Mount Desert Island. The northern shrike, a robin-sized bird, is the bird normally appearing on MDI from October through April. This bird is larger than the loggerhead shrike, but its head is smaller, and its bill is strongly hooked in appearance. Getting a photo, even a poor one, is often very helpful in knowing for sure what you have seen. Watch for the northern shrikes habit of hovering when it is hunting, much like the kestrel we see in warmer weather. Sometimes you notice this bird as it sits alone in the very top of a tree. This bird’s flight is interesting, for when it spots its prey, the shrike takes off, first dropping low and then going in a straight, fast course to it prey. At the end of its pursuit, the shrike rises suddenly to its tree top perch. This flight pattern may be very helpful in identifying the bird.

The northern shrike differs from the loggerhead shrike in its smaller size and slightly barred breast. The bill of the northern also is paler than the bill of the loggerhead. You need lots of clues for bird identification when you only get a quick look.

Deer mice are undaunted by the cold and feed on shoots of grasses now or gnaw the bark from young trees. If they come into the house, other items such as cereal, cookies, dog biscuits, etc. get added to the menu. This little mammal, a bit like a Walt Disney character, is active through the year, mostly at night. It has well developed senses of hearing, smell, taste and sight. They do not dig a burrow but make excavations under rocks, logs and stumps. When it is convenient, they use burrows and trails of other small mammals. They are strong swimmers if they have to swim. By nature, they are placid, but if they get annoyed, they stamp their feet and make high squeals!

If any of my readers are new to MDI and interested in a book I wrote a few years ago about wildlife on this island throughout the year, please call me. It is not now available in bookstores, but I have copies. It’s called “Nature Diary of Mt. Desert Island,” by Ruth Gortner Grierson.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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