Photo by Paul Varnum on Unsplash
Twenty-eight years ago, a moose swam to Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of Maine. It shook itself off and meandered down the beach feeding on beach pea and rockweed as a growing crowd of islanders followed behind snapping photos. As our family sat down for dinner, the moose passed our house before wading back into the bay. At least that’s what I’m told. We never looked up from our plates.
Animals living on Peaks Island wander in by water, air, boat or garbage truck (more on this later). And you never know what will show up. In the case of skunks, it’s claimed they arrived by lobster boat, in the middle of the night, payback between feuding Long Island and Peaks Island lobstermen. In less than 6 months, the population exploded. That was a royal mess. A group of dedicated Peaks Islanders managed to live-trap every last skunk and released them on the mainland. Did you know that a skunk in a Havaheart trap covered with a blanket won’t spray? But don’t count on it.
Some unusual birds are temporary visitors. A few years ago, a brown pelican—presumably blown up the coast by a hurricane, appeared one afternoon scavenging for scraps behind Rick Callow’s scallop boat. I didn’t believe it until he showed me a photo of the pelican hovering in the background as Rick’s wife shooed it away with a scallop knife. Others drift down from the north. A rock solitary rock ptarmigan hid out in the woods for an entire winter. In 2013 an irruption of Snowy Owls drifted down from the Arctic. My daughter, Kate, spied one perched on a sign. Until it swiveled its head, the motionless bird looked like a Harry Potter prop. Turkey, notoriously poor flyers, perhaps arrived here as eggs purchased from a catalog 10 years ago. On a walk around the island, you may spy a flock of fifteen or twenty near the ice-pond.
Ospreys and eagles, formerly rare, are now commonly seen. Our cat, Flint, loved to follow my son-in-law, Dan, down to the beach. One day, Dan looked back and noticed that Flint was flatter than a pancake, his paws stretched out in front and behind in sheer terror. Then Dan noticed an eagle cruising silently towards them at eye level and waved it off. Not this time.
We are not always adding animals. Our island plumber, Paul Erico, can recall as a teenager, taking his BB gun with his friend Chuckie Boyce, and plinking chipmunks and rabbits in the island’s wooded interior. When we moved here in 1985, my wife Sandra noticed that rabbits and chipmunks were strangely absent. Yes, it’s entirely possible for two teenage boys to be responsible for a local extinction event. Only in the last several years have we noticed the reappearance of chipmunks. Rabbits, except for an occasional domestic escapee which rarely survive the winter, exist on Peaks Island only in rabbit hutches.
Deer? The deer population exploded on Peaks in the 1990’s. Deer, like moose, swim for no apparent reason to no place in particular. Some years back, a local fishing boat reported a buck serenely paddling in the Gulf of Maine 7 miles out to sea—heading directly for France. There were so many deer on Peaks Island, they traveled in herds of a dozen a more. My teenage daughter Kate and her friend Chilo befriended a band of deer that grazed in a pasture about a half-mile from our house. At dinner one evening, Kate claimed that the deer responded to their names. I was skeptical but drove my truck to the pasture and watched as the head of first one deer and then the other popped up from eating apple drops as their “name” was called.
How tame were our deer? At Halloween, my friend Phil placed a prized pumpkin in a toy wagon and pulled it to a neighbor’s house. He knocked on the neighbor’s door to show off the pumpkin. When Phil looked back, a deer was eating the pumpkin, with a lit candle burning brightly inside.
These were hungry deer. No garden on the island was safe. I moved my garden into the hull of an abandoned wooden-hulled fishing boat in hopes of raising potatoes. The hull was twelve feet high, and I cut a hole in the hull near the bow and lugged in a wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of soil. It worked.
Things came to a head in 2003. The understory of our interior forest was barren, people were frustrated and scared, and cases of Lyme disease were on the rise at our Island Health Center. That winter, one our 2 square mile island, a state sharpshooter killed more than 200 in a controlled hunt. The deer left the island in body-bags, the meat donated to Hunters for the Hungry. We still have a few. Deer do swim here from other islands.
A few years after the deer hunt, I swore I saw a beaver noodling along the shoreline. No one believed me since there were no beaver on Peaks Island at the time. The following spring, a beaver dam and lodge appeared on the ocean-side of the island. In the space of a few years, the beavers multiplied like, well, rabbits. Pileated woodpeckers, North America’s largest woodpecker, somehow located our island a few years later and feasted on the decaying trees sticking up from the beaver-flooded marshes.
Then Mink appeared out of nowhere. One of them, I think, nearly killed our cat. Some believe that the mink (and yes, raccoons) hitched a ride on the garbage trucks which used to move back and forth between the mainland and our town dump on Peaks. The garbage truck theory explains a lot, but I don’t think a moose or deer can hide inside one.
Some animals come here to die. A large sturgeon washed up on our shore one winter. That was a prehistoric sight. Some years before that, a dead Minke whale carcass washed up on the north end of the island at Pumpkin Knob. A.J., in the public works department, picked the animal up with a large backhoe and buried it in the gravel pit in the interior of the island. A few years later, when Smoky, a legendary island horse passed, A.J. uncovered the burial site and lay Smoky neatly on top of the Minke whale. Future archaeologists will have a field-day explaining that one.
What’s next? We have no coyotes, but I have no doubt that’s temporary. Why? A coyote was reportedly seen on Cushing Island, a half-mile south of Peaks Island. We recently had a new couple on the island over to dinner and they commented that near dusk they had seen a dog-like animal near the dump. Their leashed dog whimpered and turned toward home. They were not convinced it was a coyote, but still, were concerned. Coyotes are smart. Given enough time, if they want to migrate, they’ll find a way; everyone else has.
~Thanks for reading!