Western kingbird
This western kingbird appeared late afternoon on Christmas Day to check out what all the other birds were doing at a feeder at Katama in Edgartown. This species is a rare fall migrant to the eastern seaboard from the western United States. They feed on insects but can switch to berries when no bugs are available. This bird was attracted to the other birds and came in search of a meal. It perched in the bush for a few minutes and then disappeared, not to be seen again and not found on the Christmas Bird Count. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Exciting New Year, weather or not

By E. Vernon Laux - January 5, 2006

"Out with the old in with the new" is an expression often repeated this time of year. It is a great concept - put the past behind and look forward, trying not to duplicate whatever one didn't like, screwed up, or wished they hadn't done in the past, attempting to learn from past mistakes. I like to carry this to an even further extreme, awakening each morning and starting fresh; it's a brand-new day with unknown birds to be seen.

But before looking ahead, it behooves us to take a look at the results from the Vineyard Christmas Bird Count (CBC) that was conducted on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2005. The recent past is very informative and looking at the results of the CBC, when the Island is saturated by more birders out looking for birds at the same time than on any other day of the year. Unfortunately, the big variable, the weather, did not cooperate and the day spent in the field was disappointing, in terms of birds seen, for most observers.

The wet, cold drizzle and increasing southeast winds really put a damper (pun intended) on the day's activity. Birds had no reason to leave shelter other than to visit a bird feeder. In my 39 years of CBC experience, I cannot remember ever being out attempting to listen to owls, only to hear the booming of thunder and a rather impressive lightning show. And this was in the predawn dark, the best part of the day.

You can see where this is going about the weather. Nonetheless, the time spent afield, scouring shorelines, thickets and woods was enjoyable, and the camaraderie with like-minded men and women made the day memorable.

Unfailingly, no matter how good or bad the weather, lots of birds are turned up on a CBC. This year was no exception and a northern waterthrush, a small wetland-loving warbler that winters in Central America, was detected at the Head of the Lagoon in Oak Bluffs, thousands of miles from the species' typical winter haunts. This was the first of its species to ever occur on a Vineyard CBC and brings the total species recorded on all Vineyard CBCs to a whopping 208 species.

By way of comparison, if an observer did not have to work and went birding, all day, every day, and had a bit of luck, they might find 270 species of birds, in a calendar year on the Vineyard. That includes all the breeding birds, the peak migration seasons of May and September/October as well as chasing down unusual birds seen at feeders or wherever that have been reported in the newspapers. So the combined total of all birds seen on all the CBCs is most impressive as the Vineyard CBC is conducted during the last few days of December or in early January.

Other highlights (grab a field guide and check these birds out) included a bohemian waxwing in West Tisbury, a thick-billed murre off of East Chop, a drake Eurasian widgeon on Squibnocket Pond in Chilmark, two northern shovelers in Oak Bluffs, and all three falcons - two American kestrels, several merlins, and a peregrine. There was a real lack of lingering, over-wintering warblers. Most impressive and unexpected, given the weather conditions, were the 281 harlequin ducks. This not only doubled the previous high for the species but also represented the highest number ever seen in New England. Flocks of from 25 to 55 birds were along the Chilmark shore from the Aquinnah town line to Lucy Vincent Beach, most of them around Squibnocket.

The total species recorded on the CBC was 110. While this is a lot of birds, it is the lowest total since the 1990 CBC, when a heavy fog blanketed the Island, obscuring visibility and making birds difficult to find. This year's total represented the difficulty in seeing and finding birds during prolonged rain and drizzle. It is not indicative of the true number of birds that are about.

The weather can make or break a CBC, and this past year it broke it. Out of all the CBCs conducted on the Cape and islands, the Vineyard had the lowest total this year. At least the reason was obvious, and you can't change the weather.

Lastly, there was a Christmas Day surprise, a colorful rare delight, as a western kingbird appeared for Laurel Walker who is over-wintering at Katama in Edgartown. She was watching her bird feeders around 3 pm when the kingbird flew into a bush to see what all the other birds were up to. Laurel, who has been birding enthusiastically for some time, recognized the bird as being a western kingbird and knew she needed pictures to convince skeptical column writers that she had indeed seen what she claimed. Laurel took the excellent photo accompanying this first-of-the-year column and what a fine bird photo to start the year with.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky.

To contribute news about birding activities or sightings, call The Times Birdline, 508-693-6100, extension 33, or e-mail