common eider
The largest of our wintering sea ducks, common eiders in the hundreds of thousands congregate over enormous beds of blue mussels, which they tear off their "anchors" and swallow whole. The waters surrounding the Vineyard are the best place to see them in all of eastern North America. This male allowed close approach last winter in Oak Bluffs Harbor. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Winter's grip

By E. Vernon Laux - January 25, 2007

Winter is tough for all inhabitants of the natural world- including birds, wildlife, and people at this latitude. The further north one goes on the planet, the harsher the conditions. That most spectacular of annual occurrences, migration, enhanced and perfected by birds, the most mobile and far-ranging creatures on the planet, is a strategy developed by many birds to avoid dealing with winter's icy grip. Flying south in the fall seems to be a brilliant idea, to birds and humans alike, at this point in time!

The coldest weather of a winter that has been something of "a walk in the park" has finally descended upon us. The cold temperatures, frozen food and water resources cause extreme stress for all wild creatures. This is a difficult time, especially for birds that are experiencing this for the first time. It is a true survival test for all over-wintering bird life.

The recent cold has created some rare views along north-facing shorelines this past week. When the air temperature is some 30 degrees colder than the saltwater temperature, evaporation becomes visible in the form of a fog just over the water's surface, called "sea smoke." The sea smoke has been truly beautiful (or horrifying, depending on one's point of view) during the past week. Sea smoke rendered Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds into an ethereal, surreal scene, especially at dawn, appropriate to a more northerly latitude, on several occasions. This was the first time this winter this phenomenon had been seen.

The prolonged cold has caused freshwater in a liquid form to become scarce - a big problem for birds. Because of their adaptations for flight, birds are extremely weight-sensitive, carrying only as much as they have to in order to better be able to fly. Water is heavy, so most birds strictly regulate its intake. They must replenish it at least every day, most birds at least twice a day. The availability of fresh water, as for our species, becomes more important than access to food, at least in the short term.

Many birds are forced to move from secure over-wintering locations, thickets with food and shelter, when the fresh water-drinking source they depend on freezes up. Hence birds, struggling to survive the brutal conditions, are forced to give up the routine that has gotten them this far. This causes additional stress and taxes fat (energy) reserves. A thaw of any kind is good news indeed for all species.

The inclement weather has made it difficult to get out and find birds. The best bet? Stay in a heated environment and check out the action at feeders and birdbaths. Those of us who have bird feeders only need to look out the window to see how important they are to the birds utilizing them. This food is critical for the birds' survival. If you start feeding in the fall, it is critically important for birds in January and February that you get out there, scrape off snow and ice and keep them full of seed.

Those who provide water by means of a birdbath with a heater are well aware of how important this is for the birds. The small heaters that are available range from about $15 to 50. They need to be plugged in to an electric cord but all provide the essential element of heat. Most importantly, they keep the water from turning into a block of ice.

Heated birdbaths have been action-packed places to look for birds during the past couple of weeks. Birds not normally associated with bird feeding readily seek out and utilize available drinking water. American robins, cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds, and Carolina wrens all readily and eagerly come to drink and even bathe as do many other birds that visit the feeders. It is quite something to watch 15 or so species of birds frequently returning to a birdbath in a snowy, otherwise completely frozen landscape.

The bird species that is most sought after and far and away garners the most breath-taking moments, the show-stopper if you will, that seem unable to pass up any heated birdbath, is the eastern bluebird. Like flecks of steel drawn to a gigantic magnet, these far-ranging birds, literally drop out of the sky, often from a high altitude, when they spot a heated birdbath. These impossibly pretty birds, colored a stunning, life-affirming blue, drink heartily, often bathe, and are a delight to anyone who gets a chance to see them.

Mixed flocks of frugivores, fruit- and berry-eating birds, have been seemingly everywhere on the Island. Reports from Chappaquiddick in Edgartown come of a large flock comprised of American robins, cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds, and yellow-rumped warblers from the Caleb's Pond area. Off Barnes Road near the airport, a huge flock with the same mix, only with hundreds of robins and dozens of bluebirds and cedar waxwings, is being seen almost daily. Off of Tea Lane in Chilmark is another large mixed flock of these fruit-eating birds.

They are eating the berries of the red cedar. The birds find an area loaded with the berries and systematically devour all the berries on a tree or trees, then move on to the next. They will stay there until all the food is gone and then move on in search of another food rich area. While they deplete the food resource much more quickly, there are more benefits than detriments to the flocking behavior.

Keep the feeders full, stay warm and enjoy the amazing scenery. 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