The Great Cormorant: Photo By E. Vernon Laux
The largest of the cormorants, the great cormorant is found in local waters in winter. These two sub-adults were caught in this act on the ice at the Head of the Lagoon. Comical looking birds normally, in this picture they seem to up the funny factor.

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Story & Photo By E. Vernon Laux - March 23, 2006

Things happen fast when they happen in the bird world. The spring migration is just beginning and, already, the Island has been visited by a southern vagrant. This bodes well for the upcoming migration season: a good bird, a rarity in mid-March makes hope spring eternal for birders.

This past week had both the anticipated and the unexpected. Predictable was the return of the osprey, the first confirmed individual reported at 11 am on the morning of March 16 by Penny Uhlendorf and Scott Stephens (Congratulations!) at Lake Tashmoo in Tisbury. This is early, but given the weather south of here, not out of line. Another osprey was seen by Sally Anderson on the morning of March 17 at the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank's Sepiessa Preserve in West Tisbury. More will be arriving daily and by the end of next week, they ought to be a routine sight for anyone who goes to look for these spectacular seasonal residents.

Completely unexpected was a Saint Patrick's Day surprise in the form of an adult white ibis, the same bird one sees in loose flocks in Florida. The bird made a brief appearance on Chappaquiddick, and was discovered and identified by Dale Carter of Edgartown. She was looking at the marsh just north of the Dike Bridge when she noticed a white bird foraging in the marsh. It was all white with red legs, and a long, decurved red bill. She watched it feeding for about 15 minutes until the bird got up and flew off through an opening in the trees. She then noted the black primary feathers on an otherwise immaculate white bird.

Ibises are odd-looking birds that belong to their own family, which also includes spoonbills. Gregarious, heron-like birds, these long-legged waders have long, slender bills that curve down - hence the term "decurved." Ibises of any kind are always scarce on the Vineyard, but a few glossy ibises are seen annually.

The white ibis is locally common to abundant in coastal salt marshes, swamps, and mangroves all along the Gulf Coast in Florida then north to the Carolinas. The species is expanding north and now breeds in Virginia as well. A few are seen almost annually at Cape May, N.J. They are big news on the Vineyard and there have been few scattered and unconfirmed reports for decades. Congratulations to Dale Carter for finding and identifying this stray Ibis. Her careful observations, which noted the distinctive details of the bird, and her description all make this find very credible. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the bird had not yet been relocated by other observers.

Shorebird notes
American oystercatchers are back along northern beaches. The best looking shorebirds in the world, they resemble nothing so much as tropical toucans. They came in last week in several spots and the reports keep coming in. They are fantastic looking with long orange beaks, colorful plumage and gregarious flight displays with the birds calling loudly. They possess the world's most colorful shucking knife for a beak. They are a favorite of fishermen, beach-goers, children, and anyone who gets a good look at one.

Not far behind these large colorful birds are the much smaller and much harder to see piping plovers. Not the favorite of some because of their status as a threatened bird, having these tiny plovers on a beach changes the rules for over-sand vehicles. Fortunately for all involved, The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) do an excellent job at managing, monitoring, and diverting traffic away from these vulnerable birds.

Young piping plovers almost always seek the lowest spot they can find in the dry sand for shelter from the afternoon wind. Where vehicles are allowed access, their tracks are the favorite and best resting spot for plovers. The problem is obvious to us, but not to plovers: even though they can fly solo, they don't know how to drive. They are quite invisible and can easily be flattened without anyone having seen anything. This is the reason for beach closures when the young have hatched and for the next 28 to 30 days.

The best scenario for people and plovers is to let the birds get established when they arrive from now thru early April. They will quickly pair off, court, and lay eggs. If they can do this in April, the young hatch in mid-May and are flying by mid-June. This would cause no problems for birds or people, and plovers that succeed in this have a much better overall survival rate than plovers hatched later, after a failed initial nesting attempt.

The tide has turned as far as migration and birds are moving north. Most land birds do not want to visit the cold coastline in spring so the effect of bird migration is muted, especially on the Island. Nonetheless, lots of nesting birds return, bird song keeps ratcheting up and things are only going to keep getting better.

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