Wild Side: Intriguing birds can be found, even in bitter cold

Island photographer Lisa Vanderhoop had a staredown fight with this Snowy Owl.
Photo by Lisa Vanderhoop

Island photographer Lisa Vanderhoop had a staredown fight with this Snowy Owl.

Birding the Vineyard in the dead of winter has its challenges. It seems like a stiff wind is always blowing, keeping birds under cover and turning even mild days chilly and chilly days truly frigid. Even a modest snowfall can turn our miles of lousy dirt roads into car traps — you really don’t want to get stuck down at Quansoo in the middle of January. And let’s face it, birds can be pretty thin on the ground in winter, leaving you to survey a lot of empty habitat.

And yet, when I braved the chill on Sunday to show around a beginning birder from off Island, we encountered several other folks apparently engaged in the same foolish business. The fact is, winter birding is fun, offering pleasures unavailable at other times of year, and Island birders by no means quit for the season.

For one thing, the unceasing ebb and flow of migratory bird populations ensure that every season offers specialties that can’t be found at other times of year. For example, sea ducks, — a loosely defined group of waterfowl that favor salt water over fresh — are almost entirely a wintertime treat on the Vineyard. A few individuals of one or two kinds of sea ducks can usually be found here in summer, but these are aberrations — sick, injured, or immature birds for the most part, lingering hundreds of miles from the usual summer range of their species.

But about 17 members of this group occur here in winter with some regularity, and some of these may be present by the hundreds or thousands in our waters. The recent Christmas Bird Count turned up 1,750 common eider and 1,260 buffleheads, and in some years, many times more are around. Moreover, some of these birds are simply gorgeous, massive birds or species with striking colors or patterns.

And in addition to the common seasonal specialties, winter brings at least a chance for more exotic visitors. This winter, of course, the news is all about snowy owls, and roughly a dozen of these imposing arctic predators appear to be in residence on the Vineyard. (I finally found my first snowy owl for the winter during last Sunday’s outing, or rather the beginner I was with found it for me!) But other scarce visitors from the north, like rough-legged hawk or northern shrike, are always possible and provide a real thrill when you connect with one.

There are land birds, also, that we find only in winter; on Sunday, for example, we found a flock of snow buntings at the Gay Head parking circle. These ethereal, arctic sparrows always amaze me for their ability to subsist — indeed, apparently thrive — in the most barren, exposed habitats. Among the land birds also rank some so-called “semi hardy” species, like catbirds, towhees, and hermit thrushes; these aren’t exclusively winter birds on the Vineyard, but it’s always satisfying to find a summertime bird somehow hanging on in a frozen, leafless thicket.

Another pleasure in winter comes from the fact that many birds become highly gregarious in the winter months, and the flocks that result can be impressive spectacles. Groups of hundreds of starlings, for example, are easy to find in winter, and while this exotic bird wins no popularity contests among North American birders, the acrobatic flight of a large, closely-packed starling flock is really a sight to behold. (Katama Farm and the area around the hospital in Oak Bluffs are reliable places to find starling flocks.) More appealing and sometimes equally impressive can be the flocks of American robins that sometimes winter here. This familiar species often spends winter nights in communal roosts that can easily number in the thousands.

The very harshness of the season drives another pleasure of winter birding. The resourcefulness or sheer toughness of birds that winter here can be astonishing. Many birds that subsist on insects in the summer switch over almost entirely onto a vegetable diet in the winter, zeroing in on patches of winterberry or greenbriar and gleefully inhaling the fruit. Common loons, wintering on inshore waters, show a remarkable knack for finding concentrations of crabs to hunt (watch them going at it in Menemsha channel sometime, or in the bight just off the jetties.)

And finally, there is my favorite reason for birding midwinter birding: watching the season bottom out and gradually start to move toward spring. The avian signs are subtle at first: chickadees and house finches begin to sing, pairs of red-tailed hawks begin to tangle their talons in courtship flights. But soon, hints of migration appear, whether in the form of arrivals (stay tuned for the first incoming grackles in two or three weeks) or departures (no eiders where there was a big flock the day before).

Nature never rests, and sometimes the diversity and vitality of the natural world is most evident when conditions are at their most austere. It’s worth cold feet to witness the show.