Birds

Eider Duck: Photo By E. Vernon Laux
By the hundreds of thousands, common eiders like these males winter in waters around the Vineyard. This year, some observers have noted an increase in the amount of dead ducks that have washed ashore.

Eiders swarm local waters

Story & Photo By E. Vernon Laux - March 30, 2006

Before I begin this week's column I would like to thank the readers of this column for all their valuable support. It was gratifying to have 22 calls to the bird line this week. About half the calls were about dead ducks and half about returning ospreys as well as other birds. Spring has arrived, birds are on the move and the birding keeps getting better. The more people looking and noticing birds, the more birds get spotted. More and more people on the Vineyard are paying attention to birds, calling in sightings and checking the pulse of the natural world. It is all good.

For more than a month now, there have been widespread reports of dead ducks, mostly common eiders, washing up on beaches. Hardest hit seems to be over-wintering eiders off of Squibnocket in Chilmark where no less than 60 individual birds, both males and females, have been washed in on the wrack line, a sad and wasted flotsam. There have also been dozens reported from Seven Gates Farm to Makonikey along the north shore of West Tisbury. For the past several years some massive flocks of eiders have been wintering in the middle of Vineyard Sound.

As the largest concentration of these ducks anywhere in the North Atlantic Ocean occurs in waters surrounding Martha's Vineyard and in Nantucket Sound, the finding of small numbers of dead ducks in late winter and early spring is not unusual. The stress of life in the wild, battling the elements 24/7 for a lifetime, is hard. Any little thing that causes injury or illness to one of these birds can lead to its demise. They can't take a sick day or stay home if they don't feel well. Plus, mortality is part of life and anywhere you have concentrations of hundreds of thousands of any animal, a small number will perish from natural causes.

That said, the apparent increase in the number of dead eiders and the heightened pubic concern about dead birds in general - due to the "bird flu" media mania - has people more sensitized and worried than ever before. These ducks did not die from "bird flu." At this time there is no concern about contracting "bird flu" unless you are in the habit of eating uncooked dead birds (that died from the avian influenza) or playing with them and breathing very deeply of their feathers for a long time.

Several of the dead birds finally made their way to Tufts Veterinary Clinic in Grafton, where necropsies (autopsy for animals, if you will) were performed. These birds were in tough shape, emaciated, and loaded with worm parasites. The following is a statement that was released on the Tufts Seanet Website (http://www.tufts.edu/vet/seanet/) last weekend detailing the results of the necropsies.

"February-March 2006: Volunteers and birdwatchers have been reporting dead common eiders on Martha's Vineyard beaches. This sort of mortality event is fairly typical for the Cape and Islands at this time of year (hundreds of thousands of eiders congregate in Nantucket Sound), but we are paying close attention to this event to determine if it is more widespread than usual. Thanks to the efforts of wildlife rehabilitators on Cape Cod and MSPCA personnel, we have gotten several fresh dead eiders for necropsy. Tufts veterinarians and students necropsied two adult male common eiders found on Squibnocket Beach, Martha's Vineyard on 3/13/06. Both were emaciated and had extremely high acanthocephalan parasite loads (thorny-headed worms). The larval form of this parasite is often found in lower quality prey items (including non-native species), and may indicate a larger ecological problem."

What this all means is that these birds were very sick and it appears that an infestation of a parasite overwhelmed them. What allowed these parasites to accrue in such a manner is a mystery at this time. When further information is learned. it will promptly be reported in this column. There has been a lot of concern and interest in what has been killing these birds and I will stay in touch with developments. Enough on theses for now; let's go on to more pleasant reports.

Julian Robinson found not one but two snowy owls on East Beach on Chappaquiddick on March 15. These awesome, large, Arctic-dwelling white owls are very powerful. Unlike most other owls, because they live in the far north where there are 24 hours of daylight in the summer, they must be able to capture prey that can see them. Consequently these big birds resemble a falcon on the wing and can chase down and catch all manner of flying birds, including rough-legged hawks, northern harriers and long-tailed jaegers. They are much faster and tougher than their appearance would suggest.

The first snowy egret of the season was reported on the early date of March 23 by Michelle Whitney and Tom Adams from the shores of Farm Pond in Oak Bluffs. The white Ibis that was seen briefly on Chappaquiddick on March 17 by Dale Carter, was unfortunately a 15-minute wonder, flying off not to be seen again. Bald eagles, always impressive to anyone who recognizes them, continue to be seen almost weekly.

Lastly, the ospreys are back in numbers. As reported last week, the first sighting was on March 16 by Penny Uhlendorf and Scott Stephens from Tashmoo at 11:30 am. The second report, just on the heels of the first, came on March 16 at 12:30 pm by Whit Manter from Whit's End on Tisbury Great Pond. Then reports flooded in, with sightings on from March 17 thru March 24. Some years any of these sightings could have been the first one of the season. Even though they weren't the first, nonetheless the extra reports give us a pretty clear snapshot of when the first birds arrive.

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.