The end of March has tortured us with tantalizing glimpses of spring and then a blast of winter - just typical spring weather for coastal New England and the Vineyard. Many migrant birds have returned including two Island favorites, ospreys and oystercatchers.
The ospreys again set a record for early arrival with Nancy Hugger of Chappaquiddick doing the honors by spotting one on March 9.
This is really early. Ospreys are not alone in changing their arrival dates as this phenomenon has been steadily detected almost across the board for the past 15 years and indicative of many bird species arriving at breeding grounds earlier and departing later. Is this an adaptation to a warming hemisphere or something else? Despite the weather that prevails at this season, things are happening and changing in the natural world. Bird migration is changing from a trickle to a steady flow.
The danger of returning to the Island in March for the aforementioned species is what might happen in the form of horrible weather. Unseasonable cold, wind, lots of precipitation and generally challenging conditions can make it difficult if not impossible for them to find food. Ospreys in particular must have some reserves of fat/energy to survive the difficult conditions and often appalling hunting weather.
Strong winds, driving rain and cold temperatures all combine to make spotting fish from the air difficult to impossible. It's not like they can stroll down to the fish market and order up the catch of the day. They must procure it themselves by hovering over water that, if roiled by wind and rain, can be impenetrable to the birds' remarkable eyesight. We all wish for better weather, but for many migrant birds, it can literally be life or death.
In spite of the uneven spring weather, more birds have returned to the Island. This past week has seen ospreys return to approximately half of nest poles that were active last year. On the beach, piping plovers and American oystercatchers continue to arrive from more southerly wintering areas. The delicate little plovers appear out of place on a winter beach in March. The benefit to arriving back on breeding grounds early is that the first arrivals get their respective pick of the best nesting sites for their particular species.
Possession is nine tenths of ownership so the early bird gets the best nesting habitat - or something like that. Barring a major snowstorm, prolonged nor'easter or some other not unlikely calamity, the early arrival will have made a good choice. However, with the occasional monster spring storm happening say once every couple of decades, these early birds will be in serious trouble and may expire. Such are the forces of nature, evolution at work. That's life and sometimes death.
The danger of writing about a bird in the newspaper, especially an unconfirmed or probable sighting, is that, seemingly inevitably, other casual observers will start seeing them. A few years ago, we mentioned a pileated woodpecker, an unmistakable looking crow-sized black woodpecker never seen on Martha's Vineyard. The next week after the article appeared three different people called in and reported that they had heard this species calling, although none had seen it. The observers were familiar with the species from where they had formerly lived and were well versed in its calls.
As mentioned in the previous article, the calls of the northern flicker, a medium-sized woodpecker that is common on the Island, sound nearly identical to those of a pileated. If reports of pileated woodpeckers heard but not seen on the Island were counted, the bird would in fact have been recorded every year for the past two decades, erroneously.
Because the bird has never occurred here before and really is quite unexpected, and because it hates to fly over open water, it has to be seen to be sure at it is not the remarkably similar sounding flicker. This bird is extremely rare in southeastern Massachusetts and has only occurred once on Cape Cod in the past 200 years. So, if you think you hear one, or any other unexpected species, grab a pair of binoculars and make sure you find the bird that is calling. If it is this large distinctive and previously unrecorded woodpecker on Martha's Vineyard, make sure you call this writer immediately. It is a species he has only dreamed of seeing here.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!