Monarch butterfly
There have been reports of a few lingering monarch butterflies, like this male with narrow black veination on the hind wing with enlarged spots, called scent glands, near the abdomen. Monarchs are abundant in September and early October, when they pass the Island on the way to their wintering grounds in Mexico. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Mild fall

By E. Vernon Laux - November 30, 2006

Despite the "fowl" weather on Thanksgiving Day and evening, the past week was great and it has been really a terrific fall. The weekend was amazing as the sun came out and the wind dropped, making for very pleasant and mild conditions. It was conducive to getting out and about to look for birds. The bird line was busy with some dozen reports of mostly routine stuff to slightly jaded reporters on birds but not for the lucky observers who were thrilled to see something either very well or for the first time over this past holiday weekend.

Far and away the most unusual report from "just off-Island" came from Falmouth on Sat., Nov 25, with the discovery of a nondescript small green bird, which breeds sparsely in the Midwest, called a Bell's vireo. What is unusual is that despite being extremely rare in this part of the world and very hard to identify - the best mark being its extreme blandness and lack of distinguishing features but obvious vireo characteristics - is that this species had never been seen by birders before in Massachusetts.

In fact, the state got its first record for Bell's vireo just last fall when a first-year bird flew into a mist net at a banding research station in the Manomet section of Plymouth, MA in October. This bird was measured, photographed, banded, and released and was the first accepted record of its species in Massachusetts. Fortuitously, at the end of September of this year, another, different Bell's vireo flew into another net, again at Manomet, and was measured, photographed, banded, and documented into Massachusetts ornithological history. The first and second state records of this non-descript, hard-to-identify bird, were both rock solid records with measurements and photos in the hand.

The birding community, quick to catch on about these birds occurring in this area at this season and having no chance to see either of the banded birds, which are quickly processed and released to minimize stress on them, had not had an opportunity to see either bird. So, with the reported discovery of a Bell's vireo on a field trip by both the Cape Cod and Brookline Bird Clubs at the Quisset Campus of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth on Nov. 25, an all points bulletin went out to birders from New England and beyond.

The morning of Nov. 26 found a few stalwart birders at this location and they found and photographed the first observable Bell's vireo in the state. The next morning found a crowd from not only the Cape and Islands but from all over the region, including New York State. Unfortunately, the rare bird did not cooperate and of the many dozens of observers, only one claimed to catch a glimpse of the bird.

Far and away the best bird on the Island over the long weekend was the sighting of a male varied thrush that appeared on Thanksgiving Day in a yard in the Ocean Heights section of Edgartown. These "mountain robins" occur in the west, from Alaska to California, and look like very stylish, distinctively marked American robins. Take a look in a field guide and compare the two birds. At any rate, Melinda DeFeo said her husband was excited and positive about the appearance of one of these remarkable birds (a brilliant male) visiting their yard with some robins and she was kind enough to share this information with readers of this column.

The occurrence of this species in the northeast has greatly increased in the past decade, most likely because of the increase in the number of birders who can recognize different birds. Awareness, better optics, access to field guides and a general increased awareness in the natural world are all part of the "birding" movement that is greatly adding to our knowledge, not only of bird life, but of all living things. There was a varied thrush that spent most of last winter at a feeder about a mile from where this bird was seen on Thanksgiving Day.

Tufted titmice continue to increase on the Island and are now regular visitors to feeders in all Island towns with the exception of Aquinnah. If you have these birds visiting your feeder in Aquinnah, please let us know. Bob Woodruff noticed a couple visiting his West Tisbury feeders almost exactly a year from when they last visited. The species is now firmly established and were seen by half the teams on last year's Christmas Bird Count. These "mouse-colored birds with a tuft on their head" are a welcome addition to Vineyard bird life and will be visiting a feeder near you, soon.

Michael Oliviera of West Tisbury was surprised to see a monarch butterfly near Oak Bluffs Harbor on Nov. 15. He investigated and found that he was not imagining it - it was indeed a very late fall monarch that is going to need some luck to get to its ancestral wintering grounds in Mexico. Lastly, Martha Weston was driving at dusk at the "bend in the road" on Chappaquiddick in Edgartown when she spotted a nocturnal woodcock on the side of the road. She managed to position the car with the headlights on the bird and got to study it in binoculars for a good while. It was a perfect ending to the Holiday weekend.

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