Birds

Snow goose
An adult snow goose being "mirrored" by a Canada goose. Snow geese have been increasing in numbers and are now expected late fall migrants to the Vineyard. A gaggle of five was spotted last week in West Tisbury. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Candidates' week from afar

By E. Vernon Laux - November 9, 2006

Election week brings not only human candidates, but others in the form of rare and unusual birds. Potential bird candidates from Siberia, the west and southwestern United States, Mexico, and even Central and South America might appear on the Island at this season. The operating word here being might, it is historically the time of year for something completely unexpected, a mega-rarity if you will, along the lines of a red-footed falcon, to occur.

Not the usual suspects, these vagrants have done some serious flying, somehow managing to get thousands of miles from their respective species usual range. The longer and stronger the west winds blow the greater the likelihood that vagrant land birds from afar will appear. While not occurring every year, the search for and preparedness to encounter such extreme rarities will allow the observer to keep an open mind and not readily assume that whatever bird one is looking at fits neatly into whatever pigeon hole one attempts to jam it into.

Chance does indeed favor the prepared observer. Just this past Sunday, for example, an innocuous tiny flycatcher in the genus Empidonax was discovered on Nov. 5 in Cambridge by Jeremiah Trimble, a long-time participant on the Vineyard Christmas Bird Count. Noticing right away that the bird was obviously different from expected species at this time of year, Jeremiah suspected that it was likely a vagrant. He carefully studied and photographed the bird, certain it was a gray flycatcher, a species that breeds in arid sagebrush habitats. The bird was present all day on Nov. 6 and the bird's specific identification was completely agreed upon - it is a gray flycatcher.

Interestingly, this is the second time the species has been recorded in Massachusetts. The first record was of a bird collected on Oct. 31, 1969, in Littleton. That individual was the first record for a gray flycatcher on the entire eastern seaboard.

Birds seen and unseen

The reason this is being mentioned is so that Island birders and readers of this column realize what a great spot the entire Vineyard is for birding, especially at this season. This writer has little doubt that there are several gray flycatchers, a few western hummingbirds, and several other vagrant species flitting about undetected on the Island right now.

The problem is that it is a big island, there are not many observers. Birders can't go birding as often as they would like, and most birds pass by unseen. It boggles the mind to think about what birds actually pass through undetected. I would hazard a guess that 99.9 percent of migrant birds pass over, by, and around the Island, undetected, uncounted, and unidentified. This is very exciting to think about and provides all the more incentive to get into the field to see what has not yet been seen. Every day in the field there are opportunities to learn new things, and best of all is just being out in the natural world.

This past weekend seasonal Aquinnah resident Bob Shriber birded the Gay Head Cliffs. There were lots of birds on the morning of Nov. 4, and still birds moving on the morning of Nov. 5, although not as many. There were good numbers of chipping sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, golden-crowned kinglets, and American robins. Bob also had a handful of purple finches, two white-crowned sparrows, a couple of blackpoll warblers, and a few migrant hawks, including a northern harrier at altitude heading west. In West Tisbury, Mary-Lou Perry noted five snow geese associating with a flock of Canada geese in the grass along Deep Bottom.

The action in and on the waters surrounding the Island continues to increase and the number and variety of bird life is impressive. Both red-throated and common loons are here in considerable numbers with impressive flights of both species occurring at first light at Wasque on Chappaquiddick in Edgartown. Horned and pied-billed grebes are arriving and passing through as well. Northern gannets - large, prehistoric looking birds that resemble dinosaur-like flying javelins - have been noticeable at many spots, particularly after or during easterly winds.

But the biggest spectacle continues to be the vast flocks of sea ducks, steadily pouring into area waters in huge numbers. These massive flocks of common eiders and all three species of scoters are a special feature of birding the Island at this season. Nowhere is better for getting fabulous looks at lots of these birds than the Vineyard in November.

The landscape and birds are quickly transitioning to a winter-like scene. This makes it easier to detect any late-season vagrants that may be moving by attempting to head south and west without all the foliage in the way. That is not a bad thing as the Island provides the best winter birding in New England for both land and water birds.

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.