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Science & Environment

Owls, Otters and Flying Squirrels: Count on Birdwatching to Bring Surprises

Mark Faherty

Most of this year’s Christmas Bird Counts are in the book, with Truro and Martha’s Vineyard coming up later this week. While we wait for these last counts to be tallied, I thought I’d share some of my favorite moments from the counts I’ve done this year. You may be surprised to learn that they don’t all involve birds.

Some did of course. While watching dawn arrive from the boardwalk at Gray’s Beach in Yarmouth, I noticed a dark, hawk-like shape draped across a cedar across the creek, nearly half a mile away. I suspected this was a Peregrine Falcon, always a nice find in winter, and a view in the scope eventually confirmed my suspicions. As the sun rose, we watched this feathered jet fighter rise up and shake off the night cold, then fastidiously preen to prepare its feathers for a day on the wing tormenting the other birds.

Back on the 19th, I was covering an area for the Plymouth Count, and started the day at Mass Audubon’s impressive new Tidmarsh Wildife Sanctuary. The early morning birding was good, including a couple of late lingering Marsh Wrens in the cattails, almost 30 bluebirds, and an out-of-season Common Yellowthroat perched up next to the trail. But a disturbance in the water of the recently restored creek caught my peripheral vision and turned into my favorite memory of the morning – fishing River Otters. Though common, I rarely see anything but their scaly scat at the water’s edge, so watching the sinuous dives and playful splashes of actual otters this quiet morning was a restorative experience. 

When it comes to owling, you pray for windless nights. And the early morning hours of December 22nd, the day of the Mid-Cape Christmas Bird Count, were utterly still – an owlers dream. My brother Brian and I headed groggily but hopefully towards our owling grounds in Yarmouth. When we arrived, it was so quiet I could hear the high-pitched twittering of tiny Short-tailed Shrews as they foraged about under the leaf litter. Duetting pairs of Great-horned Owls were vocal, including one female giving an odd, stuttering remix of their normal hoot.

We estimated five over several stops. Eastern Screech-Owls are by far the easiest of the owls to locate – common anywhere there are trees, and suckers for even poor imitations of their calls. Even the smallest of red maple swamps may have two or three. We managed seven in 2.5 hours.

But the highlight of that morning for me was not an owl. It was a supposedly common but nevertheless mysterious mammal of the night: a flying squirrel. These big-eyed rodents are decidedly more adorable than their daytime cousins. Unless they take over your attic, I suppose, which they will do. I hear them on occasion giving a characteristic high-pitched twitter as they scamper invisibly about the night woods, and have even caught a few glimpses of gliding individuals while driving forested roads at night. But we were lucky to have two intimate encounters with these fuzzy fellows over a twenty minute span. In both cases they were active on roadside trees just a few feet away, vocalizing and clambering about. One quickly ascended his tree, and I knew what was coming next – a quick glide on outstretched skin and he was several trees away in a blink.

I would venture that some of you haven’t seen a flying squirrel outside of a Bullwinkle cartoon, all the more reason to get out owling. Owling is, after all, just another excuse to be out in nature, and you never know what you’ll encounter out there.