The Bonaparte's gull. Photo by E. Vernon Laux
The Bonaparte's gull is a tiny, tern-like gull that frequents Vineyard waters in search of small fish from October through late May. This bird was feeding off of East Chop in Oak Bluffs.

Mild winter a boon to catbirds

Story & Photo by E. Vernon Laux - February 9, 2006

The week in birds, this last week of January 2006, has been boring, in a word. Basically, the highlights consisted of getting great looks at wintering birds that always seem to be easier to view as winter progresses. The conditions this January have continued to be so different from a year ago that it seems we have moved many hundreds of miles south. This is a welcome and lucky break for birds at this latitude. Such are the vagaries and fluctuations of weather patterns from year to year.

A few holdover birds, like the two long-billed dowitchers, very good looking sandpipers with a very long bill that should not be anywhere near this area, continue to linger. They have taken to hanging out with other shorebirds and have been seen from Norton's Point in Edgartown to Sarson's Island in Sengekontacket Pond on the Edgartown/Oak Bluffs town line. Both Laurel Walker of Edgartown and Allan Keith of Chilmark encountered these birds last week.

The relative mildness of the winter to date has been a boon for over-wintering land birds. Take the familiar gray catbird, for example: an abundant summer resident, the vast majority of the population migrates south each fall, although a few individuals usually attempt to over-winter. This year the species is having a banner year with individuals being reported from not only Martha's Vineyard in record numbers but from inland areas as well, where the species is basically unheard of in winter.

In fact, every trip into the field this winter points out just how many catbirds are here, with one of more individuals present in any suitable thicket with sufficient berries for food. Catbirds act very differently at this time of year than during the summer months when they are obvious, seemingly everywhere (and especially noticeable on the Vineyard, which has the highest density of nesting catbirds of any place in North America), and noisy. In summer they are in a wide variety of Vineyard habitats, while inland they are restricted to edge habitats and river courses.

A good way to find catbirds at this season is to watch northern mockingbirds. These feisty birds pick a small area full of berries for the winter and defend it against all interlopers. They are fierce in defense of "their" patch; flying/running off any and all other birds that would like to eat "their" berries. They take a very dim view of catbirds in "their" thickets and attempt to run them off, with little success.

Catbirds stay down in the thicket, away from winged predators and would-be enforcers like northern mockingbirds. To get a look at one, pretend you are looking for a "ghost." They stay in the shadows and are very hard to see. They keep fairly still, staying hidden in cover and rarely uttering a call note, except for a brief couple of minutes at dawn and dusk when they announce themselves with a long "meeooow" call - from which the species common name is derived.

I have intensely scrutinized a thicket for over 15 minutes, certain that no catbird is present, and as I gave up and moved on, finally spied one eyeing me suspiciously from ten feet away in the shadows. This sneaky winter behavior has great survival value. By not being a moving target, these birds lessen the risk of being spied and hunted by a wide assortment of winged and four-legged predators. Every animal is hungry in winter and, in the natural world where meat-eating animals eat other creatures, a small bird must use and develop every survival trait, every strategy that it possibly can or it won't survive.

Feeding stations, bird feeders, have been comparatively slow this winter when compared to last with so much snow cover as much natural food has remained available for land birds this winter. Nonetheless, feeders are active, especially early and late in the day and provide much-needed food to all birds utilizing them. As this is being is written on Monday, Jan. 23, it is snowing heavily outside and birds are everywhere at the feeders.

As the winter proceeds, the next month is a very critical time for over-wintering birds and those feeding birds have to come through in the clutch, so to speak. A cold winter's morning with snow on the ground is when the birds depend on you to maintain what you have been doing in a very timely fashion. They need access to seed, suet, peanut butter and whatever else you have been providing - and they need it now.

Many birds are active before it is really light outside and again late in the afternoon. Northern cardinals are always the last birds to leave the feeders, sometimes when it appears to be so dark out that they have trouble finding their way to roost. It is important to get out early in the morning, clean off and fill feeders and clear a space on the ground to spread seed for ground feeders. The winter has been good so far and here's hoping February is not a beast to make up for the benign January.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky.

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