Horned Grebe. Photo by E. Vernon Laux
Horned Grebe. This individual of a normally reclusive and hard to photograph species was very unconcerned and allowed for close approach with a spotting scope and digital camera. You can see the bird's bright red eye and distinctive shape and patterning. This bird was recently in Oak Bluffs Harbor for a brief time.

Warm weather break for birds

Story & Photo by E. Vernon Laux - January 19, 2006

A mid-January warm spell was just what the doctor ordered for wintering bird life. A nice break for all the birds, it allowed them a respite from the "right at the edge" grind of finding food or starving by noon in a frozen landscape. American robins seemed enthused by the weather and were acting like spring is just around the corner, some even breaking out in song, late last week. It was a good week for January in terms of surviving the winter.

Puddle ducks have been particularly well-suited to take advantage of the conditions and have had access to many feeding areas that most winters are covered under a thick layer of ice. All sorts of delicious underwater plants and animals, in the form of insect larvae, remained on the menu for ducks that most years have to fly farther south to find the same food. The break will enhance their chances at getting through the winter months.

For sea ducks, the balmy weather brought on lots of courtship behavior. It is hard for us bare-skinned mammals that put on layer after layer of insulating clothes to fathom the life of a duck that spends the winter on storm-tossed, frigid salt water that hovers not much above the freezing point. The insulating and waterproofing qualities of feathers provide the best defense, the most protective covering in the natural world against cold and water.

For the sea ducks out in the ocean, this latitude is, by way of comparison, like being in Florida or the tropics for humankind, and the these ducks appear to be enjoying the relatively balmy weather. They are preparing for the serious work of the upcoming breeding season by already looking for a mate and creating a pair bond. They are actively courting. Particularly noticeable have been the gaudy red-breasted merganser males that throw back their heads and utter what can only be described by the human ear as weird calls. Groups of as many as 10 males will court one or two females creating what looks like quite a circus on the water.

The ducks are pairing off right now. As the days continue to slowly get longer, the birds have already switched gears a bit. Many of these ducks begin to get restless and head north in late February and March. Most nest on tundra ponds and lakes that may remain ice covered until late May or June. Of late, ice has been going out earlier and earlier, sometimes even in April. The birds try to arrive as soon as ice is out to have the best selection of nest sites with the most food.

The female determines where the birds will nest. Males accompany and follow the females back to the area near where the female was hatched. Food is abundant in Arctic tundra and ponds during the time when it is not frozen, during the 24 hours of daylight that occurs in June and July. So in many areas of the Arctic, where seasonal food resources, accessible for only a brief time, are available, they are exploited by the only animals mobile enough to take advantage - birds that are able to fly.

The entire Arctic and Boreal regions in North America, Europe, and Asia are a veritable smorgasbord for highly mobile birds that are able to utilize it. This is a group that includes loons, grebes, cranes, many ducks and swans, gulls, jaegers, shorebirds and in the Boreal forests many varied and diverse long-distance migrant songbirds. It is a vast and unpopulated region for most of the year by birds. It is the world's nursery for large numbers of animals and migratory birds. As such it is hugely important to all the planet's natural life, not only bird life.

The two long-billed dowitchers, whose pictures appeared in last week's column, continue to be seen on the flats at Norton's Point in Edgartown. Lanny McDowell of West Tisbury has managed to take some excellent photos of these birds. Lots of the usual frugivore (berry eating) suspects have been seen with good numbers of American robins, cedar waxwings and eastern bluebirds being reported from many places on the Vineyard including Tea Lane in Chilmark, several locations surrounding the State Forest and near Turkeyland Cove in Edgartown. Bluebirds always continue to stun human observers who get good looks at them. They are an amazing blue, especially on overcast days.

Lastly, Dale Carter of Chappaquiddick in Edgartown had a very colorful visitor to her heated birdbath on Jan. 9, not far from the Dike Bridge. A brilliant, light-bulb-yellow, yellow-breasted chat came in to bathe and then sit and preen in the shrubbery for a while. If you are not familiar with this shy species that is taxonomically challenging, classified as a gigantic warbler but probably is more closely related to tanagers - take a look at a field guide. Notice the white "spectacles," white belly and undertail coverts and dramatic green back and wings. These secretive birds are always a great find. To have one appear in one's yard is a real good start to the New Year.

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