Eurasian wigeon. This handsome drake (male) duck has a red head and grey sides. Abundant on northern European coastlines, it is still rather scarce in the United States. The Vineyard usually hosts an individual or two of this species during winter months, invariably associated with American wigeon. Crystal Lake on East Chop is the premiere Island location to find one of these striking ducks. Photo by E. Vernon Laux
October ended with a weekend storm and lots of strong gusty winds, a precursor for the Nor'easters that most years rip into the northeast a couple of times in November. These storms often feature large numbers of storm-driven seabirds, some of which, like the smaller alcids, become wrecks on land where they succumb to the buffeting of high winds. It is an excellent month for coastal beach birding, however, as vast numbers of sea ducks pack the waters surrounding the Island.
On land, this month has historically been the time when the rarest of the rare birds sometimes appear. Vagrant flycatchers from South America, kingbirds from the tropics, Siberian strays - all are possible at this late-season date. Interspersed between periods of strong winds are often lovely, sun-filled days, with a small amount of insect activity that spurs any lingering strays into action.
Telephone wires become a birder's best friend on calm days at this season as they are used as perches by flycatchers, kingbirds, shrikes, or many other birds, making them very visible and accessible. The birds are right above where the birder is driving, walking, or biking. This writer, as an avid birder, is not a fan of the trend for towns and areas to install underground power and phone lines. Since telephone wires have been removed in some areas of Chilmark, areas that used to be the best for late fall birds now have become ordinary as the birds pass through unobserved because there are not suitable perches (i.e. telephone wires) to hold them.
The bird life has been changing rapidly, as it always does as the season seems to speed up towards winter as the day length decreases. David Stanwood of West Tisbury noted a bufflehead, a small black-and-white diving duck, that winter in some numbers here, on a freshwater pond in Lambert's Cove on Oct. 24. Hooded mergansers have started to appear in many locales. In fact ducks of all sorts are arriving and being seen on many ponds Island-wide. Crystal Lake on East Chop in Oak Bluffs is particularly good at this time of year and worth checking often. This past week, both American wigeon and a male Eurasian wigeon were seen.
An impressive flight of golden-crowned kinglets occurred over the past two weeks. These mites of a bird often appear in migration but this fall has been exceptional with lots of these birds appearing in areas where they are not usually encountered. Most will continue farther south but some will certainly remain to augment our usually small numbers that over-winter. What this means about what is going on in the boreal forest to the north remains to be seen.
Around the Great Lakes, birders are reporting an incursion of gray jays and both three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers. Banders, researchers who specialize at monitoring and capturing saw-whet owls during the fall migration have been learning a tremendous amount of information that was previously unknown about these nocturnal birds' movements. Interestingly, this year the owls are migrating much later than prior years and the birds have been few and fat. Apparently rodent populations are excellent in the spruce forest to the north. Are they competing with birds for the cone crop and hence this is good for owls and bad for birds that eat spruce seeds, or something else?
All sorts of birds are arriving for the winter. The season's first tree sparrows, Arctic-nesting sparrows that winter at this relatively balmy latitude, are hardy birds indeed. Imagine this area being like the tropics which it feels like for these tough little birds that live in a rather forbidding environment, year-round. Lingering white-crowned sparrows have been widespread at hotspots like Wasque on Chappaquiddick and just back from the cliffs in Gay Head.
The ploughed fields at Katama in Edgartown have been very active with shorebirds. Nan Harris of Oak Bluffs was delighted to find 12 American golden plovers there on Oct. 28 and Katherine Hines noted 14 pectoral sandpipers at this same location on Oct. 23. The fields are best during and after rains when the soaked earth forces earthworms to the surface, to the delight of the hungry shorebirds. These fields are always worth checking, rain or shine, as they are a magnet for shorebirds, gulls, raptors and the hedgerows along the edges attract a wide variety of landbirds.
Lastly, there are still at least several ospreys lingering on the Island. On the morning of Oct. 28, Martha Moore of Middle Point in West Tisbury watched an osprey catch and eat a fish. She has been seeing it daily. This past week there were at least three other osprey sightings from four Island towns - so it seems they are hanging on longer than in most years. A few times in the past 40 years, ospreys have lingered deep into winter. One, an immature bird, actually made it until mid-February when it collided with a car on the Beach Road and was killed. The species is hard-wired to migrate at this latitude and most or our birds head to northern South America or Central America for the winter.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!
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