The short days provide awesome and prolonged sunrises and sunset. This surreal sunset was photographed from South Beach in Edgartown. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Christmas birding

By E. Vernon Laux - December 21, 2006

Today is the shortest day of the year, but the great news is that starting tomorrow the days begin getting longer -imperceptibly at first until they start getting longer and longer during the spring. The twilight hours, both at dawn and dusk, are spectacular at this time of year. Many species are very active at dawn and dusk; this is called crepuscular activity, and it is the best time to find hunting short-eared owls, barn owls, great horned owls, northern harriers, all accipiters and northern shrikes. This writer wishes a Merry Christmas to all and to all a great New Year when the Vineyard Christmas Bird Count will be conducted on the last day of the count period, Friday, Jan. 5, 2007.

The holiday season on the Vineyard always provides a bounty of waterfowl to those who care to look for them. The Island is surrounded by a plethora of sea ducks as well as many other diving and fish-eating loons, grebes, ducks, and alcids. Two of the most spectacular looking ducks in the world - harlequin ducks and hooded mergansers - are increasing during recent winters on the Island, and they are fairly easy to find with a little effort. Harlequin ducks frequent rocks along the south shore from Lucy Vincent west to the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah. They can also be found around the jetties on West Chop and occasionally around jetties in Oak Bluffs. Last winter there were over 300 individual harlequin ducks wintering around the Island - far and away the most anywhere on the eastern seaboard.

Hooded mergansers are small fish-eating ducks that relocate at dawn and dusk. They can often be seen speedily flying in small groups as they move from fresh or brackish water where they spend the day to salt water bays at night. They prefer fresh water, but when things freeze up they are perfectly capable of surviving in salt water. They winter in waters all around the Island, and with a little practice and perseverance can be readily found.

Speaking of fantastic looking birds, Jeff Chapman of Edgartown related this story about a flock of some 60-plus eastern bluebirds. He was looking out his window when a "cloud" of blue descended from the sky. It was a flock of bluebirds of unusual numbers. The birds proceeded to "pig-pile" in threes, fours, and fives into the numerous bird houses on his property. They fed on the fruits of winterberry and American hollies and just lit up his yard. After about an hour the flock departed through the air. They were gone as fast as they arrived, but not forgotten. It was a memorable visit in the days before Christmas.

Bob Woodruff of West Tisbury and Paul Bagnall of Edgartown went out surveying the status of encroaching phragmite reeds along the shores and coves of Edgartown Great Pond on Dec. 18. Bob was surprised and delighted by the presence of a dovekie. These starling-sized black-and-white alcids, which look like miniature penguins, are always a rarity in these parts. The sight of one swimming and diving in Edgartown Great Pond after nice weather is an oddity indeed. Usually when these birds are detected it is after a ferocious Nor'easter when they've been driven along shorelines and occasionally inland. They also saw a wide variety of ducks including four wood ducks and four great blue herons.

Bird feeders have been a little slow with all the nice weather. Nonetheless several fox sparrows, North America's largest sparrow and one of the Island's rarer occurring sparrows, are visiting several in several towns. Tufted titmice continue to increase and are being reported from new Island locations almost weekly. They are cheerful little birds that brighten the winter landscape.

Aside from the dovekie in Edgartown Great Pond, its larger relative, the razorbill, is being seen with increasing frequency from Island waters. They can be seen in Vineyard and Nantucket sounds as well as anywhere along the south side. They seem to have increased in recent years, but whether this is real or imagined is hard to ascertain. It may be just that with better telescopes and more people looking, we are finding more than we used to. Or perhaps they are increasing.

Merry Christmas to one and all! 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