Eastern bluebird
Some Eastern bluebirds live on the Island year-round, but many more arrive from elsewhere to spend the winter, feeding on abundant fruits and berries of red cedar, American holly and a variety of other trees and shrubs. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Island waters alive with birds

By E. Vernon Laux - October 26, 2006

In the natural world late October is a time of great change in and around Martha's Vineyard. With days rapidly shortening, ambient temperatures dropping on the land and in the surrounding water, the migration of birds has shifted and most land birds have passed by. Now is the time that northerly nesting loons, grebes, sea ducks and gulls arrive to spend the winter months off our shores. This is their Caribbean, a respite from where they have just left where it will soon be a frozen, inhospitable environment until next May.

A look off any favored spot at the water in the early morning will reveal long lines of ducks and scattered numbers of flying loons passing by. This biomass - the number and bulk of these birds - is impressive. The Vineyard has more over-wintering sea ducks than anywhere else. It makes for fabulous late fall and winter birding. If you have toyed with the idea of a spotting scope to get better looks at distant waterfowl or birds sitting on the water, this would be a good time to look into it.

The birding in area waters will only get better right into the end of November. After strong winds, northern gannets, a wide variety of gulls, a few jaegers (falcon-like seabirds) alcids and a bonanza of sea ducks in close to shore are all expected highlights. With numbers of migrant land birds thinning, it seems the next few weeks have historically been the best time for vagrant flycatchers to appear.

Offshore peculiarities

The Vineyard, like virtually all islands, is different than the mainland. Islands all have peculiarities and idiosyncrasies that make them unique and so much fun. Things, while similar, really are not the same, especially in the natural world. Some plants and animals that are common just a few miles away on the closest mainland areas are absent on nearby islands.

Martha's Vineyard is a big island by New England standards. In fact it is the largest island in New England and is separated at its closest point from Nobska Point, in Falmouth, by only a four-mile stretch of water. This is nothing, as the bird flies, and some birds - most notably American crows - spend the day on the mainland and return to spend the night, roosting on the Vineyard.

Yet for a small woodland-loving bird like a black-capped chickadee or a tufted titmouse, this distance over open water might well seem like the entire Pacific Ocean. Tufted titmice are fine little birds, very distinctively marked with tufted heads, beady black eyes and loud clear calls. They are common south and west of here on the mainland. But they are relatively new arrivals to the New England region, arriving in Massachusetts in the late 1950s.

They are a southern species that has not so gradually been colonizing its way north. They do not like bodies of water, refusing to fly over them and even after they were very common in southeastern Massachusetts they were not found on Cape Cod as they refused to fly across the Cape Cod Canal. Then, with their populations exploding in the mid 1970s, they made their move to Cape Cod.

Screwing up their courage, the intrepid titmice crossed the canal. Being a woodland-loving species, however, they refused to fly across the open water. Instead, they actually flew over both the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges, stopping to perch on railings and wires along the way. Essentially nonmigratory, they flew in the daytime and were seen by many observers. The birds traveled in small flocks as they traversed the bridges and made their way to Cape Cod, where they are now abundant.

Discovering the Vineyard

At any rate, in a physical feat that is hard to compare to anything in human scale, tufted titmice made the flight to the Island in the past 15 years. Whether they were ship-assisted, riding over like the pigeons on the Steamship Authority boats, is unknown because they were not caught in the act. When detected here, which was rarely, they caused great excitement on the Vineyard.

Tufted titmice were seen along the north shore of the Island infrequently and sporadically. Often one would appear at a bird feeder, stay a couple of weeks and disappear, never to be seen again. Then in the winter of 1997, a tufted titmouse and a hybrid, a cross between a titmouse and a chickadee with some characteristics of both, a chickmouse, were found in West Tisbury.

This hybrid was photographed and generated much excitement in the bird world as these two species share a wide range together and this had never happened before. At any rate not too long afterward, a couple of years later, Kib Bramhall confirmed the first nesting of tufted titmouse on the Vineyard, in West Tisbury.

Currently their status has changed again and they are now an uncommon species on the increase. Weekly there are reports of titmice appearing for the first time in new areas of the Island or for the first time at someone's feeder. Their numbers are now rapidly increasing and ten years from now they may be common residents - but not yet.

The titmice are here to stay and are a welcome addition to the Vineyard avifauna. This fall they have been widespread and even seen with flocks of chickadees at the Gay Head Cliffs.

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