On the trail: Bird watching at Felix Neck
The Massachusetts Audubon Society's Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary encompasses 250 acres, and contains the major bird groups that are found on the Island: bird-watching bliss. Nestled discreetly on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road on property that abuts Sengekontacket Pond, it provides a bird watcher with everything but a good pair of field glasses and some patience.
As one emerges from the new growth woodland that is commonly seen on the Vineyard, the property opens up in an expanse of open fields of grass. The sanctuary, once a farm, retains many of the open fields, low growth shrubs and plants common to New England farms - a haven for birds.
Surrounded by woodlands, the fields roll to the east and west in wavy patterns of tall grass, wild flowers, and out-croppings of shrubs and trees. Peeking out above the grass are arrays of birdhouses, nesting boxes, and the hallmark Vineyard osprey pole that towers over the landscape.
The sanctuary's woodlands have two miles of well-maintained trails that meander through the property providing access to excellent birding spots, as well as offering sightings along the way. On the eastern shoreline, Sengekontacket, an inland salt-water pond affected by the tides, along with several fresh water ponds, give visitors the likelihood of spotting a myriad of water birds.
Anywhere you go in Felix Neck will undoubtedly result in some bird sightings but here are three spots that will provide the amateur ornithologist with a greater chance of seeing something special. Maps are available in the field house and volunteers are on hand to assist visitors to these prime areas. (Note: Bring bug repellent.)
Photo by Julian K. Robinson
1. Nature Center/Owl Cam
Located behind the parking lot, the Nature Center houses the administration of the Felix Neck operation. Amongst the bustling summer camp, visitors and volunteers, in the back room is a normal looking computer screen mounted to the wall - the Owl Cam, which provides an intimate view of a nesting pair of barn owls that live in a box at the back of the building. Being able to view an owl nesting was nearly impossible until several years ago, but the Owl Cam clearly shows the female tending to her clutch, while the male stands guard during the day and hunts at night. The Owl Cam is in its second year and has been extremely successful with four fledglings surviving last year and eight eggs in the clutch this year.
The Vineyard represents the northern apex of the North American range of the barn owl, which has only recently become a common sight on the Island. A nocturnal predator, its most recognizable feature is its stately heart-shaped white face.
Although the birds are inactive during most of the day, it is an important experience that should not be missed. Night programs are available for viewers to see the owls in action. Call for the program schedule.
Photo by Alex Bell
2. Southeast end of the Red Trail/ Sarson's Island
At the southeastern end of the Red Trail one comes to the shoreline of Sengekontacket Pond - one of the best places to spot water birds. The end of the trail is flanked by the green tidal salt marshes that are great areas to see herons, egrets, bitterns, and majestic low-flying marsh hawks.
Farther out in pond is Sarson's Island. This protected slit of land is home to a large roost of the prehistoric-looking common cormorants that nest there nightly. Watch the behavior of these birds in the roost because it is significantly different from when they are out fishing. If you catch them at the right time, the cormorants will suddenly explode in flight on their way to fish.
One can see laughing, black-backed, and herring gulls, common and least terns, and a wide range of sandpipers. These birds are usually alone among the cormorants. The best place to locate the erratics is on the edges of the roost pecking around the shore of the island.
Finally, view the shore on either side of the trial. There are several sand slits that appear in the lower tides. These are excellent places to see the sandpipers, terns, plovers, and oystercatchers. Keep an eye out for movement because these birds tend to blend in well with the sand. Also note the buoys and other floating objects in the water for birds taking a breather from a long day of fishing or foraging.
3. Green Trail/Osprey Nest
Half way down the Green Trail, one will have an unobstructed view of an osprey nest and a 108-degree view of the sanctuary's largest meadow. Here one can witness to the colony of darting barn swallows that make their home in the boxes scattered along the meadow. It is a joy to watch their impressive maneuverability as they hunt for insects just above the grass.
Keep an eye on the boundary between the meadow and the woodland behind it. There you can see several types of birds using the cover of the forest to hunt for birds flying in the open meadow. These include kingbirds, flycatchers, and several types of raptors, including red-tailed hawks and shrikes. And most importantly, spend some time watching the ospreys busy in their nest.
The Massachusetts Audubon Society's Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary. Edgartown - Vineyard Haven Rd. Trails open every day, dawn to dusk. Nonmember adults; $4; nonmember children (3-12) and seniors $3. 627-4850.