Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Washington Island, Wisconsin -

You're looking across steaming Death's Door in the above photo, with the Door Peninsula headland on the horizon.   It was 5 degrees below zero when this photo was taken, a gain of ten degrees over dawn's temperature.  Out of the frame and to the west of the old Plum Island Coast Guard facility, the Arni J. Richter made its afternoon run to Northport.

The main reason I posted this photo, though, besides showing the steam and ice, is the bird represented by the black dot seen in line with the tip of Door Bluff.   It's a snowy owl sitting on the ice bank, apparently content with its exposure in the 15-20 mph winds.  At first, I was unsure of the dark mass, but after borrowing a pair of binoculars from the ferry office, both Hoyt and I confirmed it was an owl hunkered down, feathers fluffed, occasionally turning its head from side-to-side.

Another reason for posting this "bird" photo is to introduce results of the recent Christmas Bird Count held on Washington Island December 15th.  Birders pooled their sightings for that day, and for the day or two on either side of that date.  Most observations are made in the field, but reports are also submitted from kitchen window yard feeders.  Sandy Peterson made the final tally seen below, along with supporting information.  This annual bird count activity takes place simultaneously throughout Door County, with Washington Island well represented by both experienced and novice birders.  Due to very cold temperatures, high winds, and ice covering the harbors, the birds seen this year were fewer in number and in variety of species than in years past, according to Sandy.

A snowy owl (or perhaps two different owls) are found in this year's count.

Our youngest son, Thor spotted a snowy owl after Christmas as it perched on the rocky point of Susie's Island.  It's likely this same bird has stayed in our area during this whole time.

Note added 01.09.14 -  Following our sighting of this owl, Melody Walsh was able to photograph the bird with a telescopic lens, and it had brownish feathers.  According to Sandy Peterson, this indicates a young bird, perhaps a young female.  Her email comment: "Snowy Owls are desperately trying to survive this winter all over Wisconsin.  Many are young of the year with no experience with winter or civilization - the ones with darker markings."  

More nature observed

Adding to local birding observations are reports of a wolf - and wolf tracks - sighted by several people on Washington Island.   At one point,  it was seen on Detroit Island, and then just Saturday it was spotted by the Arni J. crew from the wheelhouse as they crossed to Northport.  Seen scampering over broken ice, the wolf appeared to be heading toward to the mainland but was stopped by the open water in the Door.  When last observed, it was headed toward Plum Island.  According to Capt. Bill Jorgenson, it looked healthy and "well fed."

Otter hangs around

On New Year's day I tried to get several good shots as the ferry departed the Island docks, and I located myself at the tip of Kap's point, near the Travelift.   Prodigious piles of otter poop decorated the snow and the surrounding ice shelf.   Belly tracks, where it slid along in the fresh snow, were on both the shore and the neighboring, old barge that's moored there.  This is the same area where, a few years ago, similar signs showed that an otter lived in the area.

Carp or other fish pieces are often scattered about on the ice, among the piles of scat.  This animal makes raccoons seem like great housekeepers in comparison.  About the only thing the otter leaves uneaten from a fish are the boniest pieces surrounding the carp head.  The rest is ingested, and it seems rather quickly chewed.  The results scattered on the ice and snow indicate a quick trip through the otter's digestive tract.

Ferry Line mascot

The only close-up bird photo I can contribute today is of a ring-neck pheasant, taken this afternoon.  This fellow has taken to hanging around the terminal building, and, maybe to relieve boredom, he sometimes jumps to the window ledge to peer at Bill Schutz's computer.  By now he might anticipate the handouts, because I've seen him jump from the ground to the wooden deck by the south door and snatch a cookie or piece of bread offered him.  Some days he's accompanied by a hen, but today he "foraged" alone.

Winter's just begun, but already school has been called off two days in a row, this coming on the heels of a two-week holiday.  The upper and lower bay is locked up with ice, and ore boats still operating will have their share of troubles.

With this ice and cold, it will be interesting to see how wildlife continues to adapt.

  -  Dick Purinton      

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