Friday, April 14, 2017

Maine DIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist Intern Week 7

February 27-March 5 "I bet you $10 it's not a snowy owl"

Image result for snowy owl
I don't have any pictures and am yet to actually see a snowy owl, so here is one from Google commons.

People call the department all the time with questions about wildlife. A lot of the time, these questions have very simple answers and can often drive a busy biologist crazy; sometimes, it's easy to lose track of the "wildlife-knowledge-gap" between you and other citizens. Doing this for many years will make you forget that what you know is not common knowledge.

These frustrations become apparent when calls come in from all sorts of folks; from confused senior citizens thinking a domestic cat is likely a mountain lion ("Please stop sending me pictures of your coon cat" Keel will say under his breath), registered Maine guides not knowing what just ran in front of him (we couldn't get enough detail to figure it out), and occasionally, a concerned homeowner with a dead owl under her feeder.

When this woman called, she was obviously very concerned and sounded like she may have been an experienced birder, referencing the species of birds that come and go on her feeders. She noticed an owl, belly up, on her lawn directly under the feeder on that same morning. The belly was white, and given her descriptions of it, it sounded like she knew some ornithological terms, so I was quick to believe her when she said "it's a snowy owl."

For those that don't know, snowy owls are a seasonal migrant of Maine that fly in from the Canadian tundra during the winter. When they arrive, they'll pick out areas of large, open expanses, such as beaches, airports, lakes, and large fields to spend the winter in. They're a real treat to see, and I've yet to see one.

However, before we went to retrieve it, I reminded myself; people really aren't that great at identifying wildlife. Even people that consider themselves experienced in the natural sciences aren't that great. Not to mention, it was just not the right place to find a dead snowy owl.

"I bet you $10 it's not a snowy owl" I said to my cointern. He stayed hopeful, but I felt, very deeply, that it was likely a barred owl, which is Maine's most common owl. Hopefully the citizen would be okay with that identification; it's always a bummer when you find out your gold isn't real.

On the way, she called us and told us she flipped it over. She said it was much darker on the back than she thought (I clenched a fist in the air and pulled it down; I'm right) but she still thinks it could be a snowy.

Here's a reference image of a barred owl:
Image result for barred owl
Again, not my image.

As you can see, the belly is white, and to someone who doesn't look at owls often, the splotches on a snowy and a barred belly could potentially look similar. However, its back is significantly darker. Between this and the fact that barred owls are the most common owls in Maine, I figured that this was the most likely bird under the bird feeder.


We actually got two that day; upon leaving, we crossed paths with a warden who was just getting to the office who had picked one up off the side of the highway. It hadn't been struck by a car either; they both died of starvation.

Winters are challenging for all animals, but it has always surprised me at how hard it can be for our birds of prey. Things get especially bad when a hard crust forms over the snow, and birds can't grab anything under it. Of course, this is great for the rabbits, voles, mice, and other prey items, but for our big sky buddies, it can be quite devastating, as seen by the amount of mortality statewide of eagles, owls, and hawks at this time of year.

Dead barred owls that we collected. One can determine if they had starved by just feeling their breast bone; an owl that never went hungry would feel nice and fat, whereas a hungry owl has a very prominent breast bone.

We also got to play with the warden's K9 for a bit, Piper. Little did I know the week after I met her, she'd be responsible for finding a missing body of deceased lady in the area. Go Piper!

This week, I also got to revisit Swan Island. There was significantly more snow than when I had visited in January, and this time we had both a sled and an ATV. Our mission was to set one of these puppies up, which we threw together in John Pratte's garage.

Yup, it's another wood duck box! The island will be featuring several of these, which, while they won't hold wood ducks themselves, will allow you to view into another wood duck box some distance away through the monitor via wireless communication powered by solar panels. They really are wicked cool and fit just right. They should be a great addition to the island that will be available upon season open this summer, so be sure to check them out if you get a chance to walk the island's trails!

That's all for this week, thank you for reading!

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