Hooded merganser
Hooded mergansers, attractive small fish-eating ducks, are a fairly common sight on the Vineyard during the winter months. They are very active and fly very fast in small flocks. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Gales of November

By E. Vernon Laux - November 16, 2006

It is almost a certainty at this time of year that some intense weather will "attack" the Island, usually in the form of a powerful, low pressure system with big winds and lots of precipitation, a nor'easter that may last three days. While they are disruptive and can be damaging to pelagic birds, driving them towards and onto land, they are expected, predictable, and ongoing events and birds have evolved to deal with them. These storms are not man-made and have occurred throughout the rather brief history of humanity. What is not known is the connection between the intensity and frequency of their occurrence as it is connected to global climate change that is being accelerated by human activity.

The aforementioned is a roundabout way of saying that nor'easters shake things up, especially on the Island in November. It historically has been the best time to see "wrecks" of birds in the Family called Alcidae (alcids). These include razorbills, thick-billed and common murres, puffins, and the tiny dovekies, or pine knots, as they were called by old Cape Codders. Some or any of these would periodically appear after fearsome November nor'easters in ponds, yards, and fields. Once ashore, these cute little black-and-white birds that resemble miniature penguins are quite helpless and incapable of taking flight.

Should there be a nasty nor'easter in the coming weeks and you encounter one of these magical little birds pick it up and transport it to the nearest salt water. Take a look around, make sure there are no great black-backed or herring gulls nearby watching out for an easy snack of tired alcid, and put the bird in the water. It will be very thirsty (they drink saltwater) and very excited at the prospect of getting back to where all its needs are met -the ocean. It will then look around and then plop underwater, where it can propel itself with its wings, flying/swimming at great speed. This family of birds can fly in the air and through the water.

The surface waters surrounding the Vineyard are where the action is at this season. Preparing for the upcoming holidays, when birding at inland locations and even inland on the Island really drops off, the nearshore waters and both tidal and freshwater ponds are all full of bird life. Ducks of great variety are everywhere and the Vineyard is exceptional for seeing many birds that are scarce elsewhere.

Harlequin ducks - small, beautiful birds that many observers claim are the most spectacular ducks in the world - are more common here than anywhere else on the Eastern seaboard. These high surf, rock loving, ducks are hardy in the extreme. On last year's Christmas Bird Count, some 300 individuals were counted, making the south side of the Vineyard from Lucy Vincent Beach in Chilmark to the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah the best locale in the U.S. to find these attractive and fun-to-watch ducks. They are very active and when feeding are underwater a lot more than they are above it.

Another duck that should be considered when talking about the most spectacular species is the hooded merganser. These striking ducks eat small live fish that they capture underwater. They have "toothed" beaks; their bills have striations on the cutting edges that enable them to hold slippery fish. Since birds have no teeth, this adaptation enables them to capture their slippery prey. Hooded mergansers are found reliably on most Island ponds and tidal estuaries.

A nocturnal species, one that breeds in small numbers on the Island but migrates by in much greater numbers than anyone realizes, have been passing through. The easiest time to see them is in the prolonged twilight, just after dark, when their distinctive, shape can be seen flying just above the trees, brush or above a roadway. I am talking about the American woodcock, the same bird that performs a remarkable breeding display at dusk on the Island beginning on warm nights in late February.

Wendy Weldon from Chilmark was thrilled to spot one just after dark on a dirt road on Nov. 7. She studied the bird, watched it feeding, and was enthralled by its very uniqueness. Woodcock are bizarre looking. About the size of an American robin, they are shorebirds with long beaks, eyes on top of their heads and cryptic reddish plumage that renders them invisible in leaf litter during the daylight. For a refresher, take a look at a painting of one in your favorite field guide. There are many more on the Island than you might think.

Eleanor Hubbard of West Tisbury, an artist who often uses birds and other natural world subjects for her inspiration, has been noticing large mixed flocks of kinglets, tiny, insectivorous birds, the smallest birds that manage to over-winter at this latitude, with a few other species, notably ruby-crowned kinglets, mixed in. She has never seen so many and has observed that it has been a "huge" fall for kinglets and it appears they are going to attempt to over-winter in larger numbers than have been seen before. The upcoming Christmas Bird Count (weather permitting) will perhaps document this.

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