Birds

Drake common goldeneye. Photo By E. Vernon Laux
Drake (male) common goldeneye. Common goldeneyes are the last ducks to arrive for the winter and the first to leave in the spring. Flocks of these birds winter on saltwater around the Island with outer Vineyard Haven Harbor and East Chop two of the easiest places to get good looks at them close to shore. They are currently actively courting and the males can be seen throwing back their heads and calling in groups around females.

Snow cover

Story & Photo By E. Vernon Laux - February 16, 2006

Finally some real winter weather to make the birding conform to what one expects of the shortest month of the year. Those of us who feed birds, after cleaning off snow and ice and filling the feeders, can now reap the rewards as frenetic activity occurs at the feeders. The birds' movements, flying to and fro constantly, incessantly, coming and going, adding vibrant, active life to the beautiful but cold and hostile winter scene. The fabulous view of the birds portrayed against the snowy backdrop is unforgettable to the mind's eye.

It is not bad, getting a real honest-to-god Nor'easter in the middle of February. The Saturday night thru Sunday storm on Feb. 11 and 12 was a doozy. The birds that appear at feeders, previously unseen, after a heavy snowfall make it an exciting time to be paying close attention to what is visiting the yard. It was "the perfect storm" for New York City; the city recorded the most snowfall from a single storm, 26.9 inches, since records have been kept beginning in the year 1869.

The storm dropped snow from the Carolinas to Maine. The Vineyard sustained big winds, gusts to 60 miles per hour and lots of snow. It was impossible to keep bird food and feeders clean as the swirling winds drifted snow into openings as fast as one could scrape them clean. The birds huddled around snow-covered seed looking pathetic during the storm. It made human observers, watching this, feel bad, and some of them became determined to be out in the snow before first light the next morning to provide much-needed food.

Bluebird bonanza
Monday morning, Feb. 13, was a bonanza for feeder watchers. Birds that had been wintering, unseen until now as they had been able to find sufficient food in woodland or thickets were now forced by the snow cover to go elsewhere - Plan B, if you will. They move, paying attention to what all the other birds are doing, looking for mixed flocks or just other birds. They keep going until they encounter something that they can eat.

This is why watching the bird feeders after a big storm, especially one that delivers the first extensive snow cover of the winter, can be exciting, with new arrivals that are just finding your yard in a time of need. Eastern bluebirds have been reported briefly visiting half a dozen feeders during the past week. Dick Olsen of Vineyard Haven reported seeing three bluebirds on the morning of Feb. 9 make a quick visit to feeders. Most, if not all reported bluebirds made only one appearance at the feeders eating sunflower without the hull, suet cakes, or peanut butter.

The thing that really attracts bluebirds (other than feeding mealworms which is a huge commitment that few are willing and able to make) is a heated birdbath. They will be flying over in a small flock of six to 10 individuals, and even from an altitude of 1,000 feet one of the birds will spot the water and the whole flock will drop from the sky for a drink and a bath. I have been amazed, repeatedly, at seeing this very thing occur.

Not only will it greatly increase your chances of getting bluebirds to visit but also all the birds visiting your feeders will eagerly utilize a heated birdbath and provide great entertainment. By keeping it clean and full of unfrozen water, virtually every bird that ventures into or near your yard will come to drink the water. Many species that have no interest in the feeders will come for the water. It opens the yard to a whole other group of birds that would not normally visit, including hermit thrush, American robin, eastern bluebird, several kinds of warblers, Baltimore oriole as well as all the birds already visiting your feeders.

Red-winged blackbirds have shown up in small numbers at feeders scattered Island-wide. Some have undoubtedly spent the winter here, while others appear to be new arrivals that have jumped the gun a bit because of the heretofore very mild winter. David Brouillette of Edgartown carefully looked up a visiting red-winged blackbird in his bird book after one male showed up at his feeder on Feb. 12. It was the first ever to visit his feeders. It was nice to hear the excitement and satisfaction derived from identifying an unknown bird at the feeder, solving the mystery.

The past week stayed cold with prolonged below-freezing temperatures quickly shrinking the available unfrozen freshwater. This has forced waterfowl into increasingly smaller areas. While not great for the birds, it allows observers a chance to get really close-up views of species that normally would not allow such proximity. It also provides really good photo opportunities for those so inclined.

Many sea ducks are engaged in courtship displays, and despite the winter storm, spring is just around the corner. Many of these ducks will start moving north over the upcoming weeks. The first returning ospreys are only a month away and despite the snow cover, the lengthening days are sure to make the time pass quickly.

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 birds@mvtimes.com.