Martha’s Vineyard Christmas bird count shows avian hot spots

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Jeff Bernier scans State Beach for sea ducks during the Martha's Vineyard Christmas bird count on Friday. — Ken Magnuson

Kenny Ivory and I stood by the side of New Lane in West Tisbury, just off the West Tisbury–Edgartown Road. A biting wind roared up Town Cove and blasted across the bare fields. He and I had just met, and were doing what all birders do when they first meet; we were telling each other what birds we’d seen lately and where. Kenny has a Carolina wren living under his back steps in Edgartown for the winter, so he could have started his Christmas bird count by just walking out his back door and spotting this noisy reddish-brown bird with a bright white stripe over its eye.

The occasion of our meeting was the 57th annual Martha’s Vineyard Christmas bird count on Dec. 30. Teams of birders, acting on the sort of information Kenny shared with me, revisit all the Island “hot spots,” hoping to find and record as many birds of as many species as they can.

The Audubon Society established the Christmas bird count in 1900 as a social activity to replace the “side hunt,” a traditional holiday bird shoot. Over the past 116 years, the count tradition has spread over a progressively wider portion of the Western Hemisphere. From dawn to dusk, groups cover a designated area on a date that falls between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. On the Vineyard, 13 teams divide up the Island and aggregate their data at the end of the day.

Times photographer Stacey Rupolo and I caught up with Kenny and John Clark on New Lane while they were waiting for their team leader, Rob Culbert. Rob was off looking for his gloves, which he had set down somewhere and forgotten, possibly distracted by the two immature bald eagles they’d seen nearby at Oyster Pond. Or the 10 great blue herons that had been lined up along the shore of Watcha Pond. The team’s assigned area covers several ponds along the south coast. Rob has been doing the count in this territory for the past decade.

John tried repeatedly to get the bird-call app on his phone to work, so that we could attract some songbirds with a screech owl call. Disturbed by a predator’s voice, the smaller birds will dart around anxiously. With Stacey’s help he got the app to work, but the wind was making hearing any bird call — live or recorded — difficult, and most birds were lying low.

Favorite hot spots, and a tip

Rob returned, brandishing his much-needed gloves, and we made our way by car down to Flat Point Farm. We found Arnie Fischer repairing the road, filling potholes with shovelfuls of sand dug up from the side of the lane, where tires had thrown it. Arnie was working next to a thicket where Rob said he hoped to find fox or white-throated sparrows or even a winter wren, species that prefer acres of dense, woody shrubbery.

I asked Rob if this was a well-known thicket. “I know it well,” he said, “but I don’t know if other birders do. Arnie has said that we can come down here whenever, and I come down three or four times a year.” The trained naturalist has been leading guided tours on the Island for 38 years through his company, Nature Watch. Rob set his laptop down at the edge of the briar patch and clicked on his bird-call app. We trooped across the road to stand on higher ground, so that Rob could look down on the scrub and better spy any movement. A single brown flash, some sort of sparrow, flushed from the vegetation and dropped back in.

Further up the slope, we spread out across a broad flat field north of the Fischer home. It was a good place to look for pipits, horned larks, and snow buntings, boreal open-country birds seen only in the winter in these parts. Rob was also on the lookout for meadowlarks, a summer denizen that occasionally lingers into winter. Two birds sprang up from the dead grass and fought the wind to gain the western hedgerow. We tracked down one to find it was a yellow-rumped warbler, affectionately known to birders as a “butterbutt.” Rob had gotten “a pretty good look” at the other, but was not entirely sure it was a meadowlark.

A friendly driver in a red Volvo stopped to tell Rob she’d recently seen three egrets in front of her Pear Tree Cove home, and that we should stop by. When we arrived we found her feeders were attracting a host of the usual suspects, but the only white birds out on the cove were three mute swans.

Rob swung his binoculars up to the head of the cove, spotting a group of waterfowl, which he quickly identified as three black ducks and a group of hooded mergansers, one male with its characteristic white crest and the rest females. When I looked I saw only the bright white oval of the male merganser’s head. I would have guessed it was a male bufflehead duck. What were so clearly black ducks and female mergansers to Rob were just distant smudges on the water to me.

It was time to do a tally. Rob got out the official paperwork and went down the list. Kenny had seen a brown creeper back in Dodgers Hole. No one had seen a house finch yet, which was strange. For the more common species they chalked up the numbers. “How many goldfinches were there at these feeders?” Rob asked. “Eight,” said John, who had found the feeders first.

The tally

Rob, Kenny, and John continued combing their territory for the rest of the day. Because of the wind, it had not been a banner year: 54 species. At 5:30 pm they met up with members of the other 12 Island teams at the Mary Wakeman Center, off Lambert’s Cove Road, to assemble the grand tally for the day. Luanne Johnson of Biodiversity Works sat hunched over a laptop, compiling the numbers from all the teams. The 30 other people in the room ate casseroles and clam chowder, drank wine or hot cider, and talked birds.

Luanne’s template list didn’t include Pacific loon and the field teams’ lists did, causing some misalignment in the spreadsheet. “I’ve epically failed you at this point,” she joked. Soon the rows and columns of numbers were projected on a screen. Sightings of a prairie warbler and two rusty blackbirds were immediately disputed. Someone would be dispatched to confirm or reject these unlikely occurrences. Murmurs of approval greeted the spotting (confirmed with a photo) of a northern shoveler a large-billed duck in an Edgartown pond. The absence of typically common purple sandpipers prompted puzzled queries around the room; no one could recall a previous count without any spotted.

In the end, 123 species were confirmed (with the warbler and blackbirds to be double-checked). The official count period actually extends for three days before and after the count day. The 57th Martha’s Vineyard Christmas count would be an average year for diversity and for numbers; the 13 teams counted 18,835 birds, but Luanne still needed to pull together all the data from birders who counted at their feeders. All the data is reported to the National Audubon Society. As of Jan. 3, the Audubon website had received data from 378 counts for a total of 11,331,407 birds counted.

In the conference room of the Wakeman Center, 30 Island birders were baffled by the low numbers of robins this year. This most common of birds had been thin on the ground. Perhaps, unlike the birders, the robins had simply hunkered down out of the wind all day.