Birds

Lincoln's sparrow
Lincoln's sparrow is a new bird for the Vineyard Christmas Bird Count, which was conducted on Jan. 5. These lovely birds are finely streaked with lots of buff and orange on the face and flanks. They often erect their crown feathers and seem to have an expressive face with a complete eye-ring. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Results of the Christmas Bird Count

By E. Vernon Laux - January 11, 2007

The annual bird count that has been conducted for decades, took place on Friday, Jan. 5. The entire Island was "in bounds" and split into 13 areas. Each area had a team assigned to "cover" it, and birders were all over the Island on this first Friday of 2007. The weather was lovely and ridiculously mild (mid 50's Fahrenheit) with rather brisk southwest winds. It was an enjoyable and pleasant day to be in the field, and a good time was had by all, but it was difficult to find birds.

The reasons for this were two-fold. First, because of the strong warm wind and a forecast promising rain, the visibility was not very good. In fact it was foggy for all or some of the day along the entire south shore coastline, and Chappaquiddick was socked in fairly convincingly. This negated the use of spotting scopes and put birds that would be easily identified and counted on a clear day well out of range.

The second factor was that because of the incredibly mild winter, to date, with no snow cover and the Island looking more like it does in March or early April than in early January, all areas were open and accessible to wintering bird life, spreading them out over a much larger area than is typical, so concentrations of birds were very hard to find. Because of these conditions, several species that are undoubtedly present on the Island were not detected.

The total of 116 species and their respective numbers were indicative of the difficult viewing conditions from areas that boast staggering numbers of sea birds on clear days. The vast congregations of common eiders and all three scoter species normally viewed from the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah, Squibnocket Point in Chilmark, Wasque and Cape Pogue on Chappaquiddick, and from several other "go to" spots on the Island, were just a memory on this day as visibility did not allow these massive rafts of wintering sea ducks to be seen. The numbers reported, the ones actually seen on this count, represented a mere fraction of what is really there.

Such are the vagaries of Christmas Bird Counts. The data are meaningful when looked at over many years and decades but are subject to extreme short-term variation, so that if just one year is looked at the numbers can surely deceive.

Some 60 to 70 individual birders, a few starting out as early as 2 am on count day in pursuit of nocturnal owls, spent the day in the field. As always, setting loose a group of birders on the same Island on the same day, no matter what the weather, produces lots of results. Highlights on count day were many. While nothing completely out of control was seen, there was one new bird for the count as well as several rare and unusual species.

The new bird for the Vineyard Christmas Bird Count was a Lincoln's sparrow. This bird was in a thicket along the shores of Sengekontacket Pond in Edgartown. This sparrow has been recorded on many counts this year, presumably because of the mild conditions, where it is normally very rare in winter. A scarce to uncommon fall migrant through our area, it is unusual to find one after late October. This sparrow, smaller than a song sparrow, is beautifully but subtly marked with fine streaking, buffy wash and an eye-ring. They also have a distinctive call, which is what led to this bird's discovery.

A black vulture was seen over downtown Vineyard Haven. These "southern" vultures have been slowly expanding northward and are now found routinely in southwestern Massachusetts as well as near the Blue Hills in Milton. Not even five years ago, turkey vultures were a big deal on the Christmas count. Now, they are expected and regular. They were seen by almost half the teams on count day. The black vulture seems to be on track to perhaps duplicate this pattern. A decade from now we will have the answer. Presumably this same bird was seen, soaring over the Lagoon between Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs on Jan. 2 by Harrison Holmes of Vineyard Haven.

A lone dovekie, the smallest North Atlantic alcid, was seen flying by East Chop in Oak Bluffs on count day making it the only member of its family, other than razorbills, to be recorded. This little black-and-white bird is rarely seen on Vineyard counts and was a nice find. A couple of drake Eurasian widgeon were seen on count day. Tufted titmice continue to increase and are now a secure part of the Vineyard avifauna. These woodland-loving birds are now regular visitors at many feeders Island-wide.

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.