Song Sparrow: Photo By E. Vernon Laux
The song sparrow is the most common sparrow on the Vineyard and across much of North America. Determined singers, these birds can be heard tuning up for spring from before dawn right through the day. Chances are you heard several singing today, even if you didn't know it!

Return of the fish hawks

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

It is that special time of the year; in fact it is that special week when sometime soon, any day over the next week when the winds are from the southwest, the first returning osprey will magically appear, back for another breeding season. For many on the Island, these birds are the true harbingers of spring. Invariably, the first to arrive are males that were successful at rearing chicks out of last year's nest with their mate of that season. Possession is 98 percent of the battle and individual birds are fierce in defense of a nest site, once claimed. They want to be the first bird back to reclaim their seasonal territorial rights on their old nest.

The male and female do not stay together during the winter months; each migrates south to Central or South America and fends for itself. They pass the winter in the tropics, sharpening their hunting skills on the likes of flying fish, a favorite food. Inland up north, they prefer trout. The males generally arrive a week to 10 days before the females. Ospreys continue to arrive from now thru mid-April, but last year's surviving successful nesters will all be back on their respective nests with old mates by the first week of April. The birds arrive while the landscape still looks wintry and dreary.

Not only the land but also the coastal waters are soon to be teeming with life. Herring (both river alewives and bluebacks), a spring staple for ospreys, are staging in near-shore waters getting ready to make the foray into fresh water to spawn during April and May. However, ospreys are quite willing and able to capture a wide variety of fish and are quick to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself. Any fish that is in the shallows, near the surface of the water and unwary, may pay a stiff price at the talons of an osprey.

Should either a male or female return to its nest and be alone, it waits. If the other partner does not return, the bond weakens with every passing day, and the bird will start interacting with "floaters." These are birds that may be young or "widowed" or unsuccessful last year and looking for a new mate and or site. The most successful pairs will arrive within a week of each other and quickly set about renewing pair bonds, rebuilding the nest, and courting.

The arrival date for ospreys has fallen from March 17 to March 25, without fail for the past couple of decades. It is always an exciting time and rare is the observer who does not feel the pulse quicken at that first glimpse of an osprey for the year. Should you see your first osprey - a view through binoculars and absolute certainty that it is an osprey, and not a gull, a red-tailed hawk, or a rare snowy owl - please call it in and let us know. The first ten reports will appear in the column, and thanks in advance for your sightings.

American woodcock have been taking advantage of the recent stretch of nice weather to start displaying in earnest. These funny shorebirds that live in the woods put on a lively display at dawn and dusk. During the evening of March 11, woodcock were displaying vigorously. They didn't start calling and flying until it was too dark to see them except for little silhouettes backlit by the moon. Nonetheless it was a good show. Virtually any field surrounded by woods, in any Island town, will have displaying woodcock for the next several weeks. They become harder to hear, and consequently see, shortly when the din made by spring peepers, abundant and widespread tiny tree frogs, drowns out lots of other sounds.

Sounding off
Bird song continues to increase. Many songbirds sound a bit off at this time of year as they practice and tune up for the coming breeding season. Many birds learn their songs from neighbors of the same species. For first time males, new breeders, have to find a territory and then learn the local dialect, the local songs. There are some very odd songs coming from some birds at this season.

Woodpeckers are very vocal and obvious now. The various calls and constant drumming of flickers, red-bellied, hairy, and downy woodpeckers combine to make a constant background noise wherever there's a stand of some medium-sized trees. It seems like the attack of the woodpeckers is going on as they are fired up and want all the other birds to hear that they are here, and don't forget it!

The waters surrounding the Island are changing as wintering waterfowl slowly disappear. Goldeneyes are leaving and most of the other ducks will head north in short order. Loons, particularly red-throateds, are noticeably migrating. Spend a half-hour at Wasque or along the south shore at dawn, or as close to sunrise as you can make it, and you're bound to be impressed by the quantity of red-throated loons, sometimes hundreds of them, heading east. They fly east around Nantucket, then turn north, along the Outer Cape until they hit Provincetown, from which point they continue due north.

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