Ospreys are coming
The spring season seems about ready to explode with an abundance of life. Mid-March is a funny time on the Vineyard in the natural world. Birds have clearly begun to migrate. Willing winter to be gone and summer to arrive, we have to wait - the season takes its own time. It is a case of three steps forward, two steps back, but we're heading steadily in the right direction.
For birders, gardeners, fishermen, anyone with an interest in the awakening of organisms and warming weather after the winter period of inactivity, time cannot move fast enough. All indications are that with the relatively mild winter and temperatures moderating, birds will arrive back from wintering areas ahead of schedule. It has been happening already.
The presence of American oystercatchers - large, colorful, and hardy shorebirds - is almost as much a sign of spring on the Island as returning ospreys. There have been a couple of reports this past week and many more are sure to arrive before another week passes. They are spectacularly marked and a gregarious and vociferous species that are the favorite of many.
Oystercatchers have been steadily increasing in the northeast for the past couple of decades. This is good news for both humans and oystercatchers. One of the primary reasons for this range expansion is that the birds are getting better protection at both their nesting areas and on their wintering grounds.
The area these birds inhabit - beaches, tidal flats and salt marshes - must be sufficiently free of pollutants to allow them to survive. They feed on a variety of mollusks, all sorts of shellfish and snails, marine worms, and the odd small fish thrown in. They are near the top of the food chain on the tidal flats and thriving as a species.
Historically, John James Audubon reported this species as being present in Nova Scotia and even farther north to Labrador. This was greeted with considerable sarcasm in the birding community for many years as the birds rarely ventured north of Cape May, N.J. In the past several years, the birds have continued northward and are now making it into Canada. A pair attempted (unsuccessfully) to nest in Nova Scotia last year for the first time in well over a century.
New individuals and a smattering of new species arrive weekly - even daily - particularly when the wind is from the southwest. The first osprey will appear at any moment. Over the past 10 years, they have arrived anywhere between March 14 and March 21. Every year it is an exciting moment to hear of or find the first bird to beat the pack back from South America. Several years more than one male bird has been reported back on the same day. It seems that the birds are moving on the same winds, perhaps even watching each other. A couple of years ago five birds were reported back at different nests all on the same day.
Bird song, as well as the calls of the widespread and plentiful little tree frog called the spring peeper (or locally pinkle-tink) continues to increase. It is getting noisy both at dawn and dusk as well as in the early evening as animals begin preparing for another breeding season.
Lastly, a unique tiny bird called the brown creeper, the only North American representative of the family Certhidae, has been reported with surprising frequency of late. These diminutive birds are more common than one would expect. Most of the year they are ghosts, very unobtrusive and innocuous. Then in spring, they start to sing, during March, April and May, and all of a sudden you realize that there are many more of these birds around than it seems.
They make their nests under loose pieces of bark and lay anywhere from four to eight eggs. When the eggs hatch, the young fledge in about two weeks and after fully fledging, begin to make their way in the world all on their own. They are fairly easy to hear singing at several places in the State Forest near dawn.
It appears that a small incursion of migrant brown creepers has arrived on the Island. These funny birds make their way up and around tree trunks in a "creeping" manner like some sort of mouse-like woodpecker. They feed on small insects, spiders, egg cases, larvae or whatever insect matter they can find on and under pieces of bark.
Lastly, if you see what you think is an osprey, get a pair of binoculars and make sure. Turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, both great black-backed and herring gulls and many other birds like to sit on the poles at this season. If it is an osprey, show it to a friend and by all means call it in as soon as you can.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!