Bonaparte's gull
Small, tern-like Bonaparte's gulls are currently all around the Island. They are delightful gulls and watching them as they search for small fish will lead you to other, fish-eating birds like red-breasted mergansers and razorbills. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

End of year birding

By E. Vernon Laux - December 7, 2006

The dramatic and often sudden change in temperature, downward, that happens this time of year, while expected to occur, always seems a surprise. Sleet and snow on the morning of Dec. 4 provided an unwanted wake-up call. Things change quickly, especially the weather in New England. A one-day transformation from walking around, birding, in a pullover or sweater and sneakers, completely comfortable, to the next wearing a parka, hat, insulated gloves and boots, and wondering what happened. Such is living and birding in this part of the world.

The temperature swings, one day to the next, sometimes as much as 30 to 40 degrees. Imagine the havoc this wreaks on bird life. Throw in the odd Nor'easter with fierce winds and lots of precipitation, most of it in a frozen state, and without a heck of a lot of warning things have gone from bad to worse. The entire out-of-doors, the natural world around us, is transformed into a harsh, demanding, often covered environment where food is suddenly scarce, initiating a survival test for all wintering bird life. This is winter in the northeast United States.

As tough as winter is in this part of the world, comparatively, the Cape and particularly both islands but especially the Vineyard, are much milder and food rich than anywhere else in New England. Any gardener will tell you, it is milder here than on the mainland. The difference in "plant zones" between here and just 15 miles inland as dramatic as traveling from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont to South Carolina without traveling 800 or 900 miles. The islands enjoy a unique microclimate that can be very cold but is still far milder than adjacent inland areas.

The immediate coastline is full of bird food in the form of bayberry (wax myrtle), poison ivy, and red cedar (junipers) while dense inland thickets heavy with cover and many varieties of berry producing plants provide much-needed shelter as well as food for over-wintering land birds and other wildlife in the winter. This has everything to do with the waters surrounding the islands, which act as a heat sink, particularly at this time of year, helping to keep the shore and adjacent areas much warmer than air temperatures would indicate.

If a land bird is going to try to tough out the winter in the north, its chances of survival are going to be much better on the Vineyard than anywhere else. For migrant birds the motivation to stay further north in the winter months - saving huge amounts of energy, time and not being exposed to the hazards and dangers of migration - are weighed against being able to find enough food and shelter to survive the winter with survival as the ultimate goal. These are the stakes.

For birds, every decision, every second of every day is critical. One false move, one mistake, a miscue and that could be all she wrote - checkmate. The world is a dangerous place for wild creatures finding shelter, finding enough to eat, and avoiding predators are constant elements that factor into their survival. No sitting around reading the Sunday paper for them.

When a blizzard hits, if no good food source (i.e. bird feeder, berry bush or something similar) is readily available, the birds may stay hunkered down in shelter and ride out the storm. Virtually all healthy birds have built up fat reserves for just this eventuality. This early in the winter they still have this to call on. But as winter progresses these reserves dwindle. The frequency and severity of storms, cold, and especially amount of snow cover are all critical factors. The birds, unlike many humans, are trying to retain their fat reserves, not burn through them.

This past week has had some lingering bird species reported, including a blue-headed vireo in Chilmark on Nov. 26, as well as several palm warblers. With the very mild weather so far and reports from off Island of a variety of lingering warblers, flycatchers, and vireos it is hoped that the Island is not done reaping the benefits of the mild season. Visions of all kinds of rarities are dancing in birders' heads for the holidays.

Lastly, the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) period is rapidly approaching and begins on Thursday Dec. 14 and ends on Jan. 5, 2007. The adjacent Buzzards Bay Count will be conducted on Sat., Dec. 16, and the nearby Outer Cape Count will be run on Sunday, Dec. 17, as well as many others around the state. The date for the Vineyard Count will be announced soon.

With all the coverage that occurs with the running of these counts many rare and unusual species are detected. The holidays are a good time to add to one's local and state bird lists (if so inclined) as birds that are found generally are not moving until spring.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky.

To contribute news about birding activities or sightings, call The Times Birdline, 508-693-6100, ext. 33, or e-mail