“Nature Notes” will be a near-weekly blog post to keep you updated on some things going on with Maine’s wildlife. This will include incidental observations (many of which are shared on our Instagram page), recent unusual bird sightings, and notes on our bird walks or other field trips.
Further evidence that this winter has been especially difficult for Barred Owls is mounting. Avian Haven recently shared on their Facebook page that they received 32 Barred Owls into their care in January, bringing their winter total to over 100 individuals since October 1, 2016. Center for Wildlife shared with us that they’ve taken in 10 Barred Owls since December 21, 2016, all of which were noted as “found in road” or “hit by car.” At Maine Audubon we’ve had six deceased Barred Owls brought in — we are NOT wildlife rehabilitators and cannot accept any live wildlife but we do have permits to possess specimens for educational purposes.
While one of those owls was “on the table” we noticed the feathers beginning to move. Suddenly an insect emerged and made repeated flights towards the lady who had brought in the owl. The insect attempted to (and unfortunately succeeded in) going up her shirt. She stayed remarkably calm and we eventually got the fly into a jar. We identified it as one of the Hippoboscids, or Louse Flies. These parasitic flies are flat bodied, making it easy for them to slide in between mammal fur or bird feathers where they use their needle-like mouth part to draw blood. The day this owl was brought in, temperatures were in the low twenties, and while parasites are inherently off-putting, it is hard not to be amazed that a fly is able to survive Maine’s harsh winter by clinging to the feathers (and feeding from) a Barred Owl.
Speaking of insects in the winter, the weather this past week (a sunny 50º F day stuck between two snow storms) definitely threw off some wintering species. A warm spike like that can fool some overwintering species and encourage them to emerge prematurely, an often fatal error. We saw one example of this on our Thursday morning bird walk in the form of a caterpillar found in the middle of a snowy trail. Many thanks to my young naturalist buddy Fyn Kynd for identifying this as Noctua pronuba, commonly known as the Large Yellow Underwing. These ‘cutworms’ are not native to the new world and were first found in Nova Scotia in 1979 before spreading to Maine by 1985. Their mode of arrival is unknown. They are strong fliers but the possibility of a northern Atlantic crossing seems unlikely. These, like other pests, were likely accidental stowaways in shipments of horticultural plants coming across the pond. As Fyn explained to me, they are one of the few local moths to winter in their larval stage — the showier Ctenucha virginica being the other common species — while others are wintering as eggs or cocoons.
Recent birds sightings:
We stopped producing the weekly “RBA” last year because of the more useful and automatically produced Rare Bird Alert from eBird.org. eBird’s RBA is updated as soon as reports are submitted, includes media (photo/video/audio), and links directly to Google Maps for directions. Maine’s eBird RBA can be accessed here: ebird.org/ebird/alert/summary?sid=SN35688
Gilsland Farm Bird Walk:
Our weekly bird walks continue at Gilsland Farm on Thursday mornings at 8:00AM. Six intrepid birders joined me for this week’s walk, getting out just before the big snow storm hit. The fresh snow was a little too ‘crusty’ for ideal tracking but we did encounter plenty of fox tracks. These looped all around both meadows, enough to make us wonder if more than one individual was involved. The other interesting tracks belonged to an American Crow that appeared to walk to the base of a few shrubs and dig around them, presumably looking for some food (photo below).
Avian highlights included a lingering Northern Flicker, half a dozen Eastern Bluebirds, and a great look at in immature (probably two year old) Bald Eagle over the West Meadow. A complete list form the walk is available at: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34257965