Birds

Male Eastern bluebird: Photo By E. Vernon Laux
Male Eastern bluebird. These great-looking small thrushes feed on berries during the winter months on the Island. At least 200 individuals winter here. The male's red breast, white belly, and blue head, back, and tail make this bird a favorite for all who see it.

Late-winter cold

Story & Photo By E. Vernon Laux - March 2, 2006

Sunrise and sunset continue to gain ground on the night - getting earlier and later, respectively, and signaling the imminent arrival of spring. The morning air has bird song back in it, welcome but as yet unpolished sounds, as the birds are out of practice. Compare the bird calls and songs on a windless morning now with what one will hear at dawn in early June. The comparison will be informative and illustrate how much more bird song is to come.

The cold temperatures this week have made it one of the chilliest, in fact I believe the coldest, week of the winter. The good news is that with the increasing daylight, if the sun is out the solar gain is significant and quickly brings heat to areas exposed to it. Bird feeders have been very important and active as the birds depending on and visiting them are eating even more than a few weeks ago, attempting to store some energy, in the form of fat, to prepare them to either fly farther north to breed or get ready for the breeding season locally.

Heated bird baths were crazy busy this past week. As the temperatures dropped down to single digits or the teens at night, access to water became critical for weight-sensitive birds. Freshwater ponds and streams have very limited open water forcing many ducks that prefer freshwater onto saltwater. This makes the viewing for observers easier, often allowing for eye-popping looks at many of these striking waterfowl.

Sound before sight
The sounds of spring happen much sooner than the visual signs. Spring on the Vineyard can be called the "stealth" season. It seems like it is winter, then it gets muddy, and then all of a sudden, it is summer. For the same reason that the fall is so nice, with the Island surrounded by relatively warm water, keeping the season distinctively milder than inland New England, the spring, with cold water suppressing the warmth, is unlike spring elsewhere in New England.

The spring is a subtle affair, gradual in the extreme, sort of a mild greening of the land, and then suddenly it is full-fledged summer. Out on the beaches, the changes are almost imperceptible, the beach grass slowly turning from brown to green, the other plants not really showing any signs of life until June. The most obvious signs of spring on the beach are the arrival of piping plovers and American oystercatchers, which begin arriving in mid-March. Their calls and markings enliven an often stark environment that is harsh at this season.

Red-winged blackbirds and common grackles continued to arrive last week, the red-wings keeping the title of earliest land bird migrant for another year. This week the birds hunkered down, looking for and finding activity at feeders, then eating prodigiously. Despite the temperatures, many birds, including male red-winged blackbirds, found their voices. Responding to instincts, they found perches and started singing, often for 15 minutes or more at a stretch. The breeding season waits for no bird and they are tuning up and getting ready for this all-important event.

The mixed flocks of frugivores (fruit, seed, berry eaters), comprised of American robins, cedar waxwings, Eastern bluebirds, house finches, yellow-rumped warblers, a few pine warblers and some other species that occasionally join the flock, have been frequenting red cedars in the State Forest, feeding on the juniper berries. This large flock of birds - several hundred in total - feed in a group of trees, eating virtually all the berries, then move en masse to another food source. This flock has been fairly obvious, the bluebirds standing out, along Barnes Road in Edgartown from near the end of the airport runway up to the intersection of the Edgartown/West Tisbury Road.

Three bluebirds, all beautiful
There are three species of bluebirds in North America, Eastern, Western, and Mountain. All are ridiculously blue, but perhaps the Mountain bluebird is the best looking of the bunch. Eastern bluebirds are like American robins, highly migratory. While some probably remain year-round, a fairly large contingent arrive to spend the winter from inland locations in New England, taking advantage of the many sources of berries and relatively mild winter. Others are resident and some most likely arrive to nest here. Short of a large-scale effort to band the birds and find out what is truly going on with them this must remain speculative.

Nonetheless, the Eastern bluebirds that occur fairly commonly on the Island are shocking when well seen. The depth and shade of color, if these birds are seen well, leaves the observer moved. They are part of the mystery, the wonder, the marvel that birds are with their design, feathers, plumages, and powers of flight.

Lastly, the female varied thrush visiting Pamela Spencer's Edgartown feeders continues to be there. She reports that the bird is a frequent daily visitor. It even has a favorite spot at the heated birdbath pool and flips leaves out of the water when they are in its way. This is a great yard bird and one of two known varied thrushes in Massachusetts this winter.

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.