Birds

Black-capped Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee: These "cheerful" birds brighten the Vineyard landscape-all year round. One of the most widespread and familiar land birds on the Island-they are the favorite of many. This one looks particularly festive on a red hummingbird feeder. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Year's End Holiday Week

By E. Vernon Laux - December 28, 2006

The end of the year, the holidays, is one of the busiest times of year for everyone. The holiday season seems to gather steam quickly at Thanksgiving and then tends to accelerate right through New Year's. The arrival and passage of the season seems to occur faster each year with accumulating birthdays.

It is a season that brings together family and relatives. Often it involves a lot of travel. It is an emotional time for many - full of memories, happy and sad. The holidays bring many things.

They bring lots of good food, an opportunity to gather with family or friends (or not), and generally to get reacquainted with ourselves with what's important to us. For those with an interest in birds it offers the chance to participate in a Christmas Bird Count (CBC). While often conducted in less than idyllic weather, a CBC offers an opportunity to spend some quality time in the field with like-minded individuals, get a bit of exercise, see old and meet new birding friends, explore new habitats and areas and most importantly, to go find a lot of birds.

The annual CBCs concentrate the efforts of many, on the same day, in a particular area. The count period is from December 14 thru January 5. A CBC may be conducted on any one of these dates, from midnight to midnight. This gives a fairly accurate snapshot of the status and distribution of wintering birds in an area. Some CBCs have few observers, lots have many more. Numbers vary from about 30 to 100 in our area, to the spectacularly well attended Concord, Mass., CBC, which had over 400 individual observers last year.

Predictably, when one releases a small army of observers into the field, they find lots of birds, occasionally including some really off-the-wall, unexpected, rare ones. Many rarities were first detected on the local CBC. This winter there has been an unprecedented number of lingering western hummingbirds on Cape Cod and southeastern Massachusetts.

While this was not completely unexpected, as this fall a record number of western-breeding hummingbirds, which winter in Mexico and farther south, appeared in the eastern half of the continent, it has been remarkable. In fact, this fall an incursion of sorts of three different species of vagrant hummingbirds were found far from their species' normal ranges. Calliope hummingbirds had been found in several nearby states in recent years but none in Massachusetts until the Outer Cape CBC in 2002. This fall the three more individual calliope hummingbirds appeared in the Massachusetts ornithological record, changing the status of this bird by leaps and bounds.

Birders in the know were on the lookout for this tiniest of North American hummingbirds, the smallest birds in the world. All young and female type hummingbirds are very similar looking. Just in the last decade birders in our region have begun to focus on these insect-like, fast-moving, small green birds that were not known to occur in the east. Only in the last few years, armed with new field guides, digital cameras, and fantastic binoculars have lingering hummingbirds begun to be correctly identified. Certainly more surprises are in the offing.

The birding has been fantastic on the Vineyard this past week. Lingering autumnal species have mixed with winter birds to make most of the Island a rich and varied birding area. Flocks of eastern bluebirds, American robins and cedar waxwings have been obvious and widespread, adding color and vibrancy to the drab winter landscape. Razorbills, football-sized, black-and-white alcids, the northern hemisphere's convergent evolution answer to penguins, have been widespread in Island waters. Scanning from the Gay Head Cliffs on the morning of Dec. 22, Lanny McDowell and I noted many small groups feeding out in both Vineyard Sound and off the south side of the Island.

There has been a lot of bird activity in the Lagoon and between the Chops this past week. Sand eels, small fish that are eaten by almost everything, have been abundant, bringing their predators near shore. Common and red-throated loons, both red-necked and horned grebes, several immature northern gannets, both great and double-crested cormorants, flocks of hundreds of fish-eating red-breasted mergansers, dozens of the aforementioned razorbills, and a large number of gulls including lesser black-backed and Iceland gulls, have been seen in and around these waters. A female Barrow's golden eye, eight harlequin ducks and a drake Eurasian widgeon have been frequenting the area as well. The waters are alive with birdlife.

Hope all readers had a great holiday and have an even better New Year! Until next year - 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.