Birds

A spring peeper, called a pinkletink on the Vineyard. Photo by Amy Marie Williams
A spring peeper, called a pinkletink on the Vineyard. Photo by Amy Marie Williams

March holdout

Story & Photo By E. Vernon Laux - March 9, 2006

This month has come in like a lion, albeit a tired, cold, lion on its last legs. This week was one of the coldest of the entire winter. Despite the cold temperatures and biting winds, the ample sunshine provided lots of solar power, especially in areas sheltered from the wind chill. It put a damper on bird song and interactions as they did not have time to do anything but eat and survive the brutal late season conditions.

However, by the time this gets to press, conditions are forecast to have moderated substantially - to seasonal. The excitement that builds in March, waiting for the arrivals of not only the first returning osprey, quite likely to occur in 9 or 10 days, but killdeer, tree swallows, many more blackbirds. A large increase in bird song accompanied by displays of courtship behavior in resident birds make it clear that spring has slowly started. Never arriving fast enough, nonetheless it happens, taking its own sweet time.

The dance, both terrestrial and aerial, of the American woodcock, is performed at dawn and dusk on calm evenings from now through late May or early June. This performance can be heard and seen in all Island towns. Naturally some places are better than others. The best places will have an open field surrounded by woodland with little disturbance. However, the birds get so fired up in the spring, and many of these birds are northbound migrants just practicing before their arrival at their breeding area, that they will be doing their thing on ball fields and many other sub-prime locations for the next few weeks.

Calling spring peepers, small abundant tree frogs that are seemingly in every small pond and stream on the Island have started, feebly so far, but with the warming trend expect to hear the din of these little creatures virtually everywhere at dusk in a week or two. For the size of these frogs - they are a mere inch and a quarter or so - they make monster decibel levels. Proportionately, a human that could be as loud for its size would be heard all the way to New York City.

Also predictable, a huge up-tick in wood and deer tick activity (pun intended) can be reliably predicted over the rest of this month and into July. These little blood-suckers are loved only by researchers who study them. They are most active on the Island from about mid-April thru mid-June, when it is hard to go anywhere there are birds and not get many of these little nuisances all over one's legs. A thorough daily tick check becomes essential and will prevent most problems.

The day after the snow fall on March 3, Sally Anderson of West Tisbury and this writer went in search of what there was to see, attempting to stay in the lee of the brisk northwest wind, from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown. It was very cold but rather a lot of birds were very well seen. Highlights included great views of brant, attractive, small Arctic nesting geese in Oak Bluffs all along the shore from the harbor to almost Farm Pond. A close-up encounter with a lone purple sandpiper - an Arctic nesting species, tough little shorebirds, that spend winters here in small numbers surviving by probing and picking for food on rocks and jetties around the Island - was noteworthy for the duration and quality of the views.

Then along the side of the Beach Road, on the edge of the line for the travel lane, were the few land birds that eke out an existence on the beach searching for seeds and grit for their crops. Great looks at 2 song sparrows, 2 Ipswich sparrows (large pale race of savannah sparrow), 2 horned larks, and an unfortunate snow bunting that had been hit by a car. A female northern harrier, 2 great blue herons, 10 sanderlings, and 15 dunlin, along with usual great black-backed, herring and ring-billed gulls, were seen, as well as a variety of expected waterfowl.

The Head of the Lagoon was loaded with birds including a red-throated loon, common loon, 3 pied-billed grebes, 65 buffleheads, 10 ring-necked ducks, 10 hooded mergansers, 2 immature great cormorants, and about 150 roosting gulls. Ice enclosed about two thirds of the pond and most of the upper end of the Lagoon. There were American robins evident almost everywhere, as they stood out against the snow cover. Several robins were feeding on the holly berries of the only plant at Five Corners, some sitting very obviously on the electric wires over the road, making themselves very hard to miss.

The rather innocuous disappearance of wintering sea ducks has already begun to happen. They just sort of fade away with little fanfare. In fact if one does not put a spotting scope on the water at least once a week, it is a complete nonevent. Common goldeneyes are already thinning out as are long-tailed ducks. Both get much harder to find by the end of the month. Bufflehead numbers have increased; it is likely migrants from further south have arrived and are waiting with the others to push further north at the first opportunity.

The seasons are changing, inexorably, pushing and pulling, in fits and starts, and all the inhabitants of the natural world are poised to make the most of it.

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.