Birds

Common loon
Common loon, these specialized diving birds are expert fishermen. Breeding in northern lakes and tundra ponds, they nest across the top of the planet. During the winter months they retreat to southerly climes and winter on seacoasts and unfrozen lakes. They are common in Vineyard waters during the winter months. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Christmas Bird Count coming up

By E. Vernon Laux - January 4, 2007

The year in birds is going to start with a big shot in the arm - the annual Christmas Bird Count is tomorrow, Friday, Jan. 5. What this means is that tomorrow the Island gets divided into some 10 areas, and birders assigned to cover an area spend the whole night and day attempting to count every bird of every species in that area. The goal, if you will, is to count every bird of every kind on the Island. Of course this is easy to say, impossible to do. Nonetheless it is the premise that gets all participants out in the field and adds a great deal of information about what is going on with Vineyard bird life, especially when looked at over many years.

The record-breaking warmth of December bodes well for the discovery of lingering insectivorous species that normally would be well south of this area. Nantucket's Christmas Count was last weekend, on December 30, and it recorded a whopping 133 species, making it the best count in all of New England so far this Christmas-Count season. It would be quite an upset, in sports parlance, if the Vineyard could top this count, but it seems unlikely. The results will be reported in next week's column.

There were two new bird species recorded on Nantucket's Christmas Count. One of them was a lone fish crow, a southern species that has been increasing significantly on the Cape - they are common in downtown Falmouth, yet they have been recorded only once on the Vineyard. Perhaps one or more will be detected tomorrow. The other new bird was a blue-headed vireo, a fairly common fall migrant. They are supposed to keep going south, and to record one on a Christmas count is exciting.

But for me the highlight of the Nantucket count was the discovery of two yellow rails. These phantoms are the hardest to see and find of North American rails. Rails are chicken-like birds that live in marshes. The yellow rail is the size of a healthy mouse, and they act much like one, as they prefer to run through the marsh grasses than fly above them. They are most active at night. One bird was actually caught by hand as it moved through the legs of an observer, photographed, and quickly released - much to the delight of all present. Wow!

All this excitement on our sister island gets one to thinking about what might be around here waiting to be found. The beauty of Christmas Counts is they concentrate the birding efforts of many observers, often many highly skilled ones in the mix, and they invariably turn up birds that would have gone undetected and unsuspected.

The biggest variable for count day is always the weather. As this is being written I certainly hope the forecasters are off the mark as they are calling for rain or snow and strong winds. These are not what one hopes for, but the good news is this is New England and the forecasts are subject to rapid and frequent change.

There are good numbers of frugivores around this winter. These are birds that feed on fruits and berries like American robins, eastern bluebirds, cedar waxwings, gray catbirds, hermit thrushes, and the like. The Vineyard always has more of these birds wintering than most other areas in Massachusetts because of the relative abundance of red cedar, American holly, and other trees and shrubs that have lots of berries for them to eat. It will be interesting to see how many robins and bluebirds are tallied on count day.

There have been approximately 30 snow geese frequenting various fields in Edgartown over the Christmas Holiday, moving from Morning Glory Farm to various Katama locations. Hopefully they will stay and be seen tomorrow. There are the usual spectacular numbers of waterfowl off of Wasque in Edgartown and Squibnocket in Chilmark, perhaps the two premiere locations in all of New England for observing sea ducks and numbers of loons.

The Vineyard typically has great numbers of wintering loons that feed on a variety of fish and crabs during the winter months. Many loons feed along shorelines and venture into harbors at this season, often allowing views that just generally don't happen anywhere else or at any other time. The results of tomorrows bird count will be reported in next week's column.

Happy New Year to 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 birds@mvtimes.com.