2016 Loon Watch ~ My Summer With the Loons

My Adventure Begins

My story begins back in May, 2016. School was in session, we owned the campground and it had just opened, aaaand I struggled to find writing time for Cooper and Packrat’s fourth adventure, Mystery of the Bear Cub. But still, Lower Range Pond called to me, so I made time to sneak out in the kayak to check on our one pair of nesting loons.

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As they had for many years, the pair chose a spot in the shadows at the bottom of a banking on the shoreline. But it was also a spot where they’d been unsuccessful for the last six years or so.  In fact, for three of the last four years, the eggs hadn’t hatched at all. This year however, everyone on the lake was hopeful. The loons seemed to be doing well. With one week to go, I had high hopes this year would be *the year*.

Memorial Day Weekend worried me though. Lakes go from very quiet, to extremely busy overnight. Lower Range Pond is no exception, even with its 10hp limit. I managed to get out on the lake early Saturday morning of that holiday weekend to find the loons were doing fine. I even witnessed the loon on the nest turn one olive colored egg.

“Not two?” I wondered. But then again, one was all we needed for a successful nesting.

Late in the afternoon on Monday, after most of the campers had checked out, I paddled out again. I rounded the corner of the shoreline and raised my camera.  Using my 500mm lens like binoculars, I focused.

The nest was empty.

I looked again. I scanned the area. The pair were in the water together, which was not  unusual, they do this from time to time for 5 minutes or so while switching places on the nest. But five minutes passed. Then seven. And they were swimming further and further away. Seeing the homeowner nearest the nest getting onto his pontoon boat, I raised a hand in greeting and we met in the middle of the lake.

Both of us watching the loons wander away, he told me that overnight, the loons left the nest. No traces of the egg I’d seen on Saturday were left. There were no clues.

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Had a mink or weasel gotten the egg?  Had the loon been scared off the nest and kicked the  egg out in its hurry? It was a mystery.

“But the loons have been circling the area all day,” he assured me. “Maybe they’ll nest again.”

I could recount the many times I paddled out on the lake over the next couple of weeks, looking for signs of nesting. And failing to find those signs.

And I could tell stories of the times I didn’t see any loons at all and went home discouraged.

But let’s skip ahead to June 15th, when I rounded that corner at first light and saw a flash of white. I raised my camera, zoomed all the way out, and saw this.

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A bright sunny spot, visible from three sides, it was a little further away from my friend-on-the-lake’s home.  If the loons couldn’t successfully hatch eggs while hiding in the shadows, why would they pick this spot?  A spot where they could be seen by every kayaker and canoer, paddleboarder and fisherman on the lake.

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A nest easily accessible to eagles and their young that were just about to fledge.

It sure was a beautiful spot though. Speaking with a photographers eye, it was perfect. Unlike the May nesting, June nesting had greenery. The sun rose at the perfect angle and there was blue water behind her instead of a dark banking.

I called my friend and told him right away. He gave me permission to use his dock and land so I wouldn’t have to take photos from a rocky kayak.  “Let’s find out why they haven’t had chicks,” he said.

So I began my mission to document a full nesting period of the loons.  Coffee in one hand and my camera in the other, I paddled out almost every morning at 6am to start my day.

Just me and the loons.

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I chose not to get out of my kayak, instead staying as low as possible.  These photos look like I’m very close, but I had my 5oomm lens zoomed out all the way, and then I cropped the photos some more back at home. What a difference it makes in the sharpness of your photos when you have calm, windless mornings and/or a shallow area to rest upon.

You might think that watching nesting loons would get boring after awhile. I mean, how many photos like the ones above can you take? (I, of course, took hundreds!)

But there’s more to nesting than that. In the first week alone, I watched the adult move sticks from here to there . . .

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I watched them check the air for predators continually . . .

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And on the second day, I watched them turn two olive colored eggs with their very sharp, very long beak.

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Two!  Two eggs!   I was hooked.  I marked the days off on my calendar, and made a decision not to post on social media until the eggs had hatched.

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I wanted to give them the very best chance I could.

Through the next few blog posts, I’ll tell tales of what I learned about loons while watching them from my kayak, over coffee, in the first light of day. Teachers, feel free to use these photos and tales in the classroom with Cooper and Packrat’s first adventure, Mystery on Pine Lake, or with other nature books, such as Cynthia Lord’s, Half A Chance.

Up next:  Switching places on the nest

Posted in Cooper and Packrat, Hiking/Kayaking, My Loon Watch 2016, Wildlife Geek Notes, Wildlife Sightings, writing notes | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What Did That Fox Just Eat???

Through my trail cam and photos, I have watched foxes eat many things . . .

As I snapped this photos series of of this adorable kit, I sat high on a hill above, quite a distance away with my long lens. It wandered through the woods, sniffing here and digging there.

It wasn’t until I was home editing the photos, that I saw this cool image below of the fox nose to nose with a caterpillar! I remember gasping and thinking, “How cute!” Visions of picture book ideas about a fox and a caterpillar being friends, danced through my imagination!

But then, THIS photo popped up next!

He ate it! But I”m not sure he liked it!

I’ve watched an adult fox walk through the woods . . .

Dig under the leaves, and retrieve a cache of food she’d hidden weeks before.

I’ve even watched kits play with a dead mouse their mom left for them.

But I have NEVER seen a fox catch a quick lunch of snake before!

Video taken by my shed – April 30th (the date on the cam was incorrect!)

Foxes can run 30 miles an hour and are very stealthy! They hear and see very well in the dark. That makes them good hunters. And thank goodness they are, because they have small stomachs, so they eat many small meals a day.

Foxes prefer mice, rabbits, squirrels and other small mammals, but they’ll eat bugs, birds and lizards, too. And if they live near your home, they might eat left out dog food or go after your chickens. But these aren’t their first choices.

Writing Prompt:

Using the fox and caterpillar photos above, write a story about them!

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Gopher Tortoise

An Endangered Species in Florida

I’ve visited my in-laws on Sanibel Island so many times over the last twenty years, that it has become like a second home to me. Everywhere you go, there are yellow warning signs that say: Gopher Tortoise Crossing.

Every year I’d visit, I’d look for them, but I wouldn’t see them.

Then in 2019, while driving back from a day on the beach photographing osprey snatching fish from the ocean, I suddenly hollered to my husband, “Stop the car, stop the car!”

There, on the grass on the side of the road, was a gopher tortoise! Finally!

Gopher tortoises can weigh up to 15 pounds, and have scaly, shovel-like front legs that are specialized for digging.

They’re a threatened species in Florida, and are the only tortoise east of the Mississippi. Hatchlings and young gopher tortoises are yellow and brown, but the bright color tends to fade with age. They dig many burrows in their lifetime and spend 80% of their lives around it. Burrows are approximately 15 feet long and 6 feet deep, and they help the tortoise maintain their body temperature in extreme weather, such as droughts or fires. They are also protection from predators.

The main reason the tortoise is endangered is because of a loss of habitat. They need land with trees, but not too many trees, so the sunlight can get through and the tortoises favorite plants to munch on, can grow. They also need dry, sandy soil to dig their burrows.

Another reason their numbers are going down, is because females are apt to be hit by cars as they travel to find a good nesting site.

Cool Facts:

  • Gopher Tortoises can live 40 to 70 years in the wild
  • Their diet includes wire grass, broadleaf grass, berries, flowers, apples, and mushrooms.
  • Their burrows also become shelter for hundreds of different animals like burrowing owls, wild rabbits, mice, and indigo snakes. Because those animal’s survival depends on the survival of the gopher tortoise, this makes the tortoise a keystone species.
  • Females lay 5 – 9 ping pong ball sized eggs, which hatch 80 to 100 days later. The hatchlings are on their own the minute they are born, with no adult to help them survive!

Florida has laws and rules in place to help the tortoises. Scientists are recording their movements and patters to learn more about them, and they’ve also created apps so people like you and me can report gopher tortoise sightings. They’ve also made it illegal to move a tortoise from its burrow.

What is YOUR favorite endangered species? Why is it endangered? Tell me about it in the comments below!

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Mystery Bird in My Backyard

I had a new visitor to my feeders this week. Only one, not a flock or a pair.

I was curious, so I quickly snapped a few photos and looked him up in my trusty bird book. I have to admit, I laughed out loud!

This cute little masked bird is called a . . .

Yellow-rumped Warbler!

He gets his name from a patch of yellow on his rump (get it? I’m sure you do!). It only shows up when he spreads his wings. I’ve tried to take a picture of his “rump” to show you, but so far, no luck. He’s a quick little bugger!

The Warbler has only come to eat the suet, I haven’t seen him on my platform feeder, nor has he gone toward the oranges I have out for the Orioles.

He seems quite happy with his lunch!

You know me! I did a little bit of research . . .

Yellow-rumped Warblers like to eat insects in the summer. They’ll go after beetles, ants, grasshoppers, gnats and even spiders, to name a few. They’ll snatch them from midair!

They’ll eat wild seeds, and sometimes go to feeders for sunflower seeds, raisins and peanut butter.

That little black mask, makes him look quite mysterious!

If you’d like to know more about them, click on this link to the Audubon website! They have tons of information about this, and other birds.

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Baltimore Orioles

Nature’s Amazing Weavers!

Baltimore Orioles are one of my favorite birds and I watch for them every spring.

My Grandmother liked to tell me a story about how my Grandpa would stand under their blossoming crab apple tree in the spring, and he’d whistle their song. Grandma said the Orioles whistled back, and they’d have long “talks” together.

When I moved to Maine, my mother-in-law Emily put orange halves on a feeder, high in the air. I asked her what birds would eat an orange. Sure enough, Baltimore Orioles flew from the woods around our house to feed on them! Here in Maine, we put the bright fruit out around May 15th. Because this year’s spring is so early, I put mine out today.

Note: If you try this, be sure to switch the oranges out often so the Orioles always have fresh fruit. An orange that’s old or moldy could make them sick. You can hang the halves from the trees, if you don’t have a platform feeder.

Why do Orioles like oranges? It’s not because of their color. The sugar in them gives the Orioles the energy they need before and after a long migration. You might see them feed from hummingbird feeders, too. After a couple of weeks, I won’t see them at my feeders anymore. They mostly eat insects for protein during the summer months.

I also keep natural food on my property for them, too. Trumpet vines and raspberry bushes are just two of their favorites.

I haven’t had a sighting yet this year, but I listen carefully every day for them. In 2019, I had a pair visit several times a day.

Adult male Orioles are brightly colored
Female Orioles are a duller orange color, to help them blend into the treetops

When hunting for Orioles with your binoculars, look up! Orioles normally forage for food and sing loudly from the highest treetops!

You’ll find them nesting there, as well. Female Orioles create beautiful, carefully woven, sock-like nests n the small, upper branches of a tree.

Using fibers such as grass, hairs , wool, bark and grapevines, she’ll weave them in and out with her beak. Sometimes she’ll use fishing line, string, or yarn. It takes about ten days for her to build her nest, and when it’s just right, she’ll line it with grass, hairs, moss, and other soft items.

Orioles lay 4 to 5 bluish-white eggs inside it! The female sits on them for about two weeks. The nests blends in so well with its surroundings, it’s hard to find! They’ll be hanging about 20 feet in the air, but sometimes as high as fifty feet.

Both parents feed their young. I found this nest because I heard the little hungry chicks inside calling for food. (Remember, I have a very, very long lens so I was far away, taking pictures from my kayak)

Male Oriole coming back the nest
Again, here is the male oriole checking on the chicks inside
Here is the female Oriole, feeding a chick

The young leave the nest 12 to 14 days after hatching.

See the little open mouth begging for more?

Here’s some more information and a video showing orioles building their nest . . .

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Cedar Waxwings – Masked Bandits

Cedar Waxwing Writing Prompt

Cedar Waxwings are a favorite of mine. They look like masked bandits, don’t they?

With that mask, a pale yellow belly and a yellow tip on their tail, they’re fun to photograph. Harder to see and photograph, are the red, waxy tips on their flight feathers.

Cedar Waxwings are very social birds and hang out in large flocks. They even nest nearby each other. Building their nest can take 5 to 6 days. The female does most of the work, bringing materials with about 2,500 trips back and forth to the nesting site! Sometimes, this masked bandit will steal materials from another species nest, to save time.

Waxwings love fruiting shrubs and trees, such as serviceberry, strawberry, mulberry, dogwood, raspberries, and yes, cedar berries! That’s where they get their name. They’ll pluck the fruit, and swallow it whole!

But every now and again . . .

they drop one!

Don’t you just love the expression on its face!

Using the photos and wildlife notes above, write a story about this masked bandit and the berry that got away!

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Searching For Something New

An April Vacation ~ Earth Day Challenge

Those who have followed along on my wildlife adventures, might remember that I have a connection to Sanibel Island, in Florida.  My husband’s parents introduced me to it years ago and it has become a home away from home.

This year, I won’t be able to go, since we’re all in a quarantine situation. I think what I’ll miss most (besides visiting family) will be walking the beach just after sunrise. At that time of day, the stillness of the world and the softness of the light, makes it one of the best times for wildlife watching.

Today, I wanted to share with you one of my favorite wildlife watching memories since I started visiting the island. I’m hoping it will inspire you, to be on the lookout for something new over school’s April Vacation.

One morning, I headed out on a three mile walk along the ocean from the island campground, to the Sanibel Lighthouse.

Along the way, I saw the usual sights; pelicans, plovers, dolphins swimming by . . .

. . . herons looking for lunch, ospreys diving for fish and even a raven trying to steal food from someone’s bag.

And there were shells everywhere! Seeing it all brought a smile to my face, but I didn’t take pictures of them though, because today I was looking for something *new*. Something I hadn’t seen before with my own two eyes.

I was almost at the lighthouse, and I’d about given up hope. In fact, I’d already planned to walk in the other direction the next morning, when I saw in the distance a crowd on the beach. A news crew was there as well. I walked a little faster. People had gathered, were smiling, nodding, and at the center of it all . . .

an actual Loggerhead Sea Turtle! GASP

I’m such a nature geek . . . you all know that . . . I ran to join the group and waded into knee deep water with my 500mm lens and camera bag . . .

It was slowly making its way to the water . . . a sea turtle release!

I found out later that what I’d witnessed first hand, was the CROW – Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, Inc. releasing a female sea turtle who had suffered from red tide poisoning and loggerhead anemia. It was such a humbling experience to watch this great creature make its way back into the water after being rehabilitated.

An experience I’ll never forget, all because I was looking for something *new* that day.

I challenge you to look at the world around you this next week. Can you find something *new to you*? Observe it, draw it, photograph it, and report back! I’d love to see what you found!

And I’ll be looking, too! Although this year, it will be a little closer to home . . .

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Snapping Turtle Fight!

From Research To Written Word


Snapping turtles.

I’ve seen them sunning themselves on rocks . . .

Had them lay eggs on my front lawn . . .

I researched a lot and learned cool facts. Did you know snapping turtles CANNOT pull their head and legs inside their shell like most other turtles? That’s why they get so aggressive and mean when they’re threatened.

Even with all that information, I wasn’t inspired to write about them at all. Then one day, I was kayaking with a friend, Cynthia Lord. We heard a SPLASH! and a HISS! There were ripples in the water.

We got a little bit closer.

At first it looked like a snapping turtle was thrashing around in the weeds.

Was it in trouble?

We kayaked closer still, thinking it was caught in fishing line or a plastic six-pack ring. Maybe we would have to save it!

Oh! Wait a minute! There’s two! Were they mating?

No! Fighting!

Turtle fight!

Did you see those claws! *shudder*

When I got home and studied the videos and photos I’d taken, I knew this cool, unique behavior had to be a scene in one of Cooper and Packrat’s eco-adventure mysteries. It’d all been so fierce, but so slow motion, too! So I put the behavior I’d witnessed in a file folder in the back of my creative mind. But I left it sticking out just a little, waiting for the perfect time to pull it out and use it.

A couple months later, I started rewriting Mystery of the Bear Cub. Chapter One opened with Cooper and Packrat fishing from a canoe, the warm summer sun beating down on them, cool breezes blowing. Fishing poles out, bobbers lazily floating along, the boys talked about the summer ahead and the cool things they wanted to do . . . . . for four whole pages!

BOOOOOOORING!

So I pulled out that creative file folder in my brain, looked at the pictures and videos again, and wrote this scene starting right on Chapter Two . . . .

The sun climbed a little higher. Not a leaf twitched. Not a pinecone stirred. This cove was protected from the wind, which made it an excellent fishing spot. It was always way warmer, in this semicircle of trees, than out in the middle of the lake. And today, with the temperature hovering around 75 degrees, it felt downright hot. My eyelids got heavy. I struggled to open them, to see my bobber. They slid closed.

Hisssssssss!

Probably some kind of bug, I thought, keeping my eyes closed.

HISS! Splash. Hisssssssss!

I sat up so fast the canoe rocked back and forth, making me bobble my fishing pole. It clattered to the floor as I grabbed hold of the canoe’s sides with both hands. “What was that?”

Packrat’s squinting eyes scanned the surface of the water, trying to see into the shadows of the cove.

Splash. Splash. SPLASH!

A huge claw-like thing, about the size of my palm, rose up out of the water. It was a dark brownish-green with nails about an inch and a half long.

Sharp nails!

It hung there, reaching for the sky. Packrat and I leaned forward.

A long, skinny blob the size and shape of my fist rose up next. It had nostrils, two eyes, two teeth, and a mouth. An oval shell. A turtle! But not just any turtle.

A snapping turtle!

Packrat and I slowly paddled forward as the claw connected with the turtle head.

Hisssssssss!

The head, the shell, and the claw all sank under the water like a submarine. Was it in trouble? Why would it hit itself in the head like that?

We paddled a little closer. And a little closer still. Two turtle heads rose up out of the water! One opened its mouth wide, its head stretching farther and farther from its shell, all slow-motion-like. Then it lunged for the other turtle’s face.

A turtle fight!

“Whoa!” breathed Packrat. He put his pole down to dig into one of his vest pockets. “Have you ever seen anything like this before?”

“Never!” I replied.

Pulling out a camera, he began taping.

Both heads sunk under the water again, then rose again, higher this time. A claw came up and connected with the other head, covering its eye and dragging downward, leaving a gash.

“Ow!” Packrat winced. “That’s gotta hurt. Should we break it up?”

“It’s nature.” But if it got any worse, I was thinking I might put a paddle between them.

The underdog, or under-turtle, rose up once more. It laid a claw on the other turtle’s neck. That turtle quickly rolled and went under.

“Are you getting all this?” I cried. Roy was going to love it!

Packrat nodded. His eye on the camera screen, he zoomed in.

Up went another claw. The nails extended as far as they could go. “That,” I shuddered, “is going to give me nightmares tonight when we sleep in the tent.”

Now then, that’s a much better way to start a chapter, don’t you think?

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Eastern Phoebe Siblings

Writing Prompt

This wildlife photo series or Eastern Phoebe chicks, begging for a meal, is one of my personal favorites. The expressions on their little faces makes me laugh every time!

Phoebes sit on a perch, waiting for flying insects to wander by. Then they’ll snatch the insect from the air and take it to feed their little ones.

Watch as all four of these chicks (who’ve just left the nest) beg Mom for the food she’s brought . . .

The chick on the far right is sooooo eager, one of his “feet” slide off the branch!

Not only does he get fed, but it seems as if he’s eaten everything she brought . . .

Because she flies away for more food.

Uh-oh. Somebody’s brothers and sisters aren’t too happy . . . especially the one on the far left!

What a look!

Can you finish this story? What happens next?

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Nesting Eagles In A Snowstorm

Back in April 2017, we had a nesting pair of eagles.

Similar to this year, they’d gotten off to an early start due to a bit of a warmer than normal spring. Everything seemed to be going according to schedule. They shared egg-sitting duties on the nest . . .

One eagle flies in to sit on the eggs, as its partner flies off to stretch its wings.

They called back and forth to each other.

I remember how much I couldn’t wait to see the chicks! At this point, they only had two weeks to go.

Then came a worrisome weather report. After two weeks of 40 and 50 degree weather, a major snowstorm was due. Two feet of heavy wet snow.

High winds.

The works!

Just like today’s prediction with this year’s nesting eagles.

I was so worried! Would the nest hold the extra weight? What if mama eagle got hungry? Would she stay on the eggs? Could she keep the water and snow off them? The questions rolled around my brain like a snowball getting bigger and bigger.

I rushed to the lake’s edge to snap “before” photos. She didn’t seem too worried.

The next day, about halfway through the storm, I couldn’t take not knowing what was happening at the nest! I donned my snowshoes and headed for the lake again.

This is the sight that greeted me.

Where did she go?

I worried all night. The next morning, I snowshoed out at first light. There’s a spot in our trail halfway to the water, which has a view of the lake through the trees at a higher elevation. This is the photo I took, with my 600mm lens extended as far as it would go, and then I cropped the photo on top of that.

Still, I couldn’t see her!

At the edge of the lake, I tried again to focus in. Still, I didn’t see her.

But when I got home, and started going through my photos, zooming in on them one by one, I came across the most amazing behavior! She was there, under all that snow! Not only that, but she had just endured 18 hours of 40 mile-an-hour winds in that nest, as it swayed back and forth! Can you imagine?

When I present at schools and I show students these slides, I use it as an example of what amazing parents eagles are.

And yes, they did go on to have one chick that year!

Although sadly, they failed to nest in 2018 and 2019. THIS year, they are nesting again! And today, we are getting a foot of wet, heavy snow! I’ll keep you posted on how they do.

Come back again for more updates!

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