Storms, Otters, and an Owl!

In the eight days since the last posting on the blog, the storms have continued to pound and hammer the area around the station. No less than four days (half the period of October 12th to 19th) had winds too strong to open nets, with another two days when nets were run for just a couple of hours. In short, there were meaningful banding operations on only two days. As a consequence, very few birds have been captured and banded during this period.

It is not completely unusual to have windy days in the Fall, but it is quite unprecedented to have so many in such a short period of time. What is surprising as well, is that most of the time, the strong winds were coming from the South. Usually, at this time of year, North winds are more to be expected; barrelling down from the frozen expanses of the tundra and the boreal forest, bringing both cold and rain with them. However, that was not the case this October, when we have been literally basking in warm air and bright sun.

Once more, however, our power lines did not weather the storms well. We lost power again in the middle of the night last Saturday, prior to a very stormy Sunday. (They call it stormy Monday but Sunday just the same) On that particular day, it rained hard all day with gale-force winds blowing hard from the South. Thankfully, no trees fell on the lines, which appear fine. After walking the whole line again (a “fine” bushwhacking from Cabot Head to the switch at Gillies Lake, up and down the slope), we are eagerly awaiting a crew of Hydro One to close the switch and give us electricity again.

For now, we have the generator and these great solar lanterns that can also charge devices!

In the meantime, we have been enjoying some moments of pure joy. Otters decided to visit Wingfield Basin in their relentless quest for food, and offered us a magical spectacle. We watched their sleek, glistening bodies glide through the water and dive without a splash to gather crayfish. Emerging with a crayfish in their mouths, they tilted their heads skyward to munch on the juicy morsel, the crushing of shells clearly audible. Otters eat the entire crayfish, which makes otter scats easy to identify: look for remnants of crayfish shells in them. We watched two otters fish this way on October 17th when they approached the Gargantua (our own shipwreck) and then climbed on its stern where the beaver lodge is located. Suddenly, a beaver came swimming out of its lodge and lunged at the otters who took fright and dove in the water. Coming back up, they grunted at the beaver, but very quickly  swam away, being no match for the second largest rodent in the world armed with very sharp teeth. The following day, it was a family of four who swam and fished all along the shore. We watched them haul out onto the shore and groom. Looking like giant balls of fur in the shade of a cedar tree. Later on, they were back in the water, swimming around the Gargantua. And, soon enough, they were all on board, on the deck (or what’s left of it) enjoying the sun. They also sniffed – all of them – very intently some otter scats there. Were they from different otters? The adult otters decided it was better to add a layer to augment their territorial claim. Nothing say “field biologists” more than getting excited by watching otters delivering scats and urine in their latrine!

On that day, October 18th, the strong South wind was once again wreaking havoc with our nets: we had to close them after only two hours. But migration monitoring is not simply banding: we also do a census (a one-hour standardized route) and observation throughout the morning. There wasn’t much in the trees or on the ground, with only a few juncos, yellow-rumped warblers, kinglets, and so on. The action was more over the bay with a good movement of ducks. We detected the first scoters of the fall, mostly White-winged Scoters (in a few flocks, with the biggest of 18 birds), but also a pair of Surf Scoters, the male a glossy black with two big patches of white on its head, the female a more subdued brown. There were a few, small flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers, as well as one Horned and three Red-necked Grebes.

Surprisingly, there were also many flocks of Pine Siskins arriving from the bay, fighting the strong headwind by flying low over the water. If they came from the other side of the bay, they must have felt some relief to see land again.

But the biggest surprise was to see a Short-eared Owl flying over the bay, steadily making its way South, flapping its long, narrow, pointy wings. It would circle from time-to-time, giving us a chance to admire it through the scope. Short-eared Owls are quite unmistakable (except, maybe with Long-eared Owls) and are not opposed to migrating in the middle of the day. They are wanderers, going as far North as the tundra for the Summer, and flying back South in the Fall. It is the first time – to my knowledge – that a Short-eared Owl has been seen at Cabot Head! It was definitively the highlight of the day, if not of the season!

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