Birds

Northern gannet
Northern gannets are the largest members of the Sulidae, the booby family. These large graceful birds breed off the coast of Newfoundland and on the Gaspe' Peninsula in huge colonies. They then fly south, some going all the way to the Caribbean for the winter. Currently, there are many more around than is typical in winter and can be seen on any ferry crossing, off any headland or even resting in Vineyard Haven Harbor. They are impressive birds and amazing to watch as they plunge, often from hundreds of feet in the air, into tempestuous seas, throwing up large plumes of spray as they crash-dive into the water in pursuit of finny prey. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Winter strikes

By E. Vernon Laux - January 18, 2007

The winter that never happened is coming to an end. As this paper goes to press, the forecast for the coldest weather in over a year will have arrived. Yesterday was supposed to be the worst of the bone-chilling with high temperatures not supposed to go above freezing. There will be a big influx of land birds to bird feeders. Should it ever snow again, which is rather likely, then be prepared to get up pre-dawn, clear off all feeders and prepare to enjoy the show outside the window over breakfast. With spring seemingly just around the corner, a little cold weather would be all right, even natural.

The temperatures have been so warm that it has caused behavior in birds that is clearly not in synchrony with what they would normally be doing. For example, a northern cardinal in Oak Bluffs has been repeatedly attacking its own reflection in ground floors windows of a house downtown. While this behavior is fairly routine in April and May when the birds are in full breeding mode, their endocrine systems jacked up with all the breeding hormones, this sort of behavior in mid-January will very likely lead to an early demise.

This is because it is not yet the breeding season, there is no emergent vegetation for protective cover, very few other cardinals are acting this way and there are many more hungry and active winged predators in the form of Cooper's hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, merlins and the like about, not to mention the ever-present domestic cat threat. Perhaps this male bird is very fit and eager to be the first one defending a territory in the area. Most years that would work to its advantage but this year it might just make it a big red irresistible target. It is tough out in the natural world.

While participating on the Vineyard Christmas Bird Count on Jan. 5, the team I was with heard five different spring peepers, a.k.a. tree frogs, calling in five widely disparate locations, all in Edgartown. These small tree frogs averaging about two inches long, are normally in a deep freeze - call it amphibian hibernation or suspended animation, if you like - during the month of January. What does it mean for their survival, that they are "awake" and calling in the middle of February? Are they using much-needed energy reserves that they will need to survive until late March and early April when this species goes to both vernal and full-time ponds to mate and lay eggs, or is this something they routinely do and is of little consequence.

These fascinating frogs offer a wealth of information about an ecosystem's health. They are abundant in localized areas and can offer insights into many questions about the effects of our warming climate not only on themselves but also on the trees and shrubs they live on, the insects they eat, and many other poorly known and understood aspects of their biology. How are they able to survive? Hopefully some college student enamored of frogs or looking for a research project will give weighty consideration to a small frog with suction cups on its fingers that lives in the eastern United States. There is a lot to be discovered.

The generally dreary weather over Martin L. King Day weekend did not make for especially good birding. The rain and fog kept all but the "very keen" from getting out and doing much birding. Several ventured out but had nothing at all out of the ordinary to report. Fortuitously, so far this season there has not been a repeat of the duck die-off, concerning mostly common eiders that occurred last year beginning in the middle of this month and getting worse through February. If you do find any dead ducks along the shoreline please call them in so someone can retrieve them.

There have been lots of seabirds lingering further north this season than is typical, but this is true for land birds as well. Last weekend at Cape Anne north of Boston, a couple of Pomarine jaegers, big falcon-like seabirds, were seen as well as lots of kittiwakes and five species of alcids including hundreds of common murres. With upcoming forecasts for inclement weather and winds from the east, it is a good idea to get to a favored spot to look for storm-driven birds, particularly at first light, as they are horrified at the sight of all that land and make their way back out into the open ocean where all that they require is provided.

If you feed birds, it is time to step up your duties from now through March. If you have been feeding them, then they have learned of your generosity and are counting on it continuing. Make sure your feeders are all in working order. Scrape out the rain-encrusted rotten seeds that congregate at the bottom of all feeders, especially after all the recent wet weather, and replenish suet, peanut butter, or whatever else you provide. The best show in town is out your windows for the next several weeks, enjoy.

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.