MCHT land steward Kirk Gentalen and fellow "actors" - at work making videos for MCHT
MCHT land steward Kirk Gentalen and fellow "actors" - at work making videos for MCHT

Lights, Camera Phone, Action!

You probably know this already, but Maine Coast Heritage Trust makes videos. Ever since the COVID thing made events or public walks-and-talks tricky to impossible to hold, MCHT ramped up its video output in great ways. I may be biased (only slightly and only in the right ways) but they are wonderful! The short movies are organized into four categories—Coastal Moments, Tour a Preserve, About MCHT, and Nature Lessons—and are easily accessed. Check ‘em out!

I mention this about videos because helping to create this year’s batch has been part of my work over the past few weeks. Beyond the standard trail clearing, cabin destruction, and all things stewardship that regularly keep me occupied at MCHT, my “gig” has recently included filming, writing, and (dare I say) starring in some of these homegrown films! One such video focusses on trail etiquette and preparing for a hike, which was fun to film with co-workers who I hadn’t seen in person for over a year! What a reunion!

A second video I am helping with is inspired by the Nature Bummin’ column that preceded this one, called “A Tale of Ten Pellets,” which itself was inspired by, well, finding a bunch of owl pellets! Kristen Eaton and Ceci Danforth, both of MCHT fame, thought it might be fun to get some footage of pellet finding and dissection and turn it into something for everyone to enjoy. Make a video about owl regurgitant? Twist my arm….

According to Kirk – the “most beautiful owl pellet in the world.” Found on Clark Island Preserve.

And so last week I found myself visiting the Clark Island Preserve in St. George looking for owl pellets and good locations to film. Knowing barred owls live in the preserve, and having found pellets along the trails before, I figured finding pellets wouldn’t be a problem. And it wasn’t.  

In fact, three out of the first five trees I looked under had at least one pellet below them. Beautiful pellets, too! They had obviously been there for a few rains at least, as some of the fur that makes up most of a pellet had partially washed away, exposing skull and bones even before dissection began! Pellets are the best!

But of course, and as always, there were plenty of other distractions to see along the way. In certain sections of my search, signs of porcupine were everywhere. Scat and de-barked saplings were common, evidence that porcupine are not only present, but that their digestive systems are alive and working! My reaction to finding bark less spruce and fir saplings was completely heartless—porcs gotta eat, am I right?

Porcupine teeth marks

Songbirds were active and vocal as I searched. Brown creepers were numerous and singing continuously. I think I might have even taped one when filming some background footage for the video, we’ll have to see.

An early blue-headed vireo was hanging in a mixed species flock with black-capped chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches and white-throated sparrow sang out with their, “Pure, sweet, Canada, Canada, Canada.”  Ruffed grouse—state bird of Pennsylvania—were “drumming” on logs not too far off my search route. I wish some lived by my house so I could hear them more often.

Here’s nature writer Lang Elliot’s description of Ruffed Grouse Drumming:

“In the spring, male Ruffed Grouse perch on fallen logs and make a low-pitched drumming sound by opening and closing their wings in rapid succession. The thumping starts slow but quickly gains in speed, and the rapidly beating wings turn into a complete blur when the drumroll reaches its peak.

One might think the thumps are produced by the beating of the wings against the chest, but in actuality the thumps are little sonic booms created as air suddenly fills a vacuum made when the wings are thrust outward from the breast.”

Very cool. We love non-vocal communication. 

A few days later I returned with a pair of young “actors” for the actual owl pellet video shoot. My son Leif (12), and neighbor/friend/6th grader Lily (also 12) made for great photogenic participants as we set out to shoot video clips focused on pellets. Well, that was the focus at the onset at least. But with many eyes come many distractions. (Or something like that.)

First we scooped a spotted salamander egg mass out of a vernal pool and took some footage we might try to sneak in with the pellet stuff. In the fields a garter snake was sunning and allowed itself to be handled for a minute or so. Ticks were also numerous on this sunny day which reminds me: do a tick check everyone!

Porcupine scat

The white-throated sparrows were quiet on this particular afternoon, I did not hear a-one. Instead they were making a ruckus by stirring up dry leaves with the classic “sparrow dance,” which consists of jumping back and forth, dragging their feet on the back part, and kicking things up to look for food. We watched as one white-throated sparrow peeled and then feasted on an old winterberry. It was a loud scene.

We kept our eyes out and found even more porcupine-chewed trees. In the end, a porcupine—in the flesh—was spotted actively chewing up high in a willow tree towards the beginning of the trail. Fantastic ending—it’s a wrap!

And the pellets were great of course, and certain to be found (I had left the ones from the other day untouched). We took them back to our house and dissected multiple skulls and body parts—including an intact mouse tail. Lots of good questions, lots of good fun, and lots of good footage. 

Keep your eyes open for that video. We can only hope it’s as fun to watch as it was to make!

Enjoy the distractions! See you out there!

See more Nature Bummin’ stories from Kirk.

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