Birds

Horned lark
Lovely horned larks are found on the Island year-round. They nest in small numbers on dunes, and winter here in greater numbers. They are often easy to find along Beach Road, where this photo was taken. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Winter hazards

By E. Vernon Laux - February 1, 2007

The month of January started out gently but ended with a fierce blast of what New England winters have traditionally been about. The long and bitter blast of Arctic air that enveloped much of the center and eastern half of the country, bringing the coldest temperatures in a couple of years made life difficult for all wild plants and animals. Unfortunately, birds have been dropping like flies, a combined triple whammy of severe cold, diminishing food supplies, and increasing energy demands.

Virtually every kind of bird has been feeling the impact of the severe winter conditions. From waterfowl to lingering semi-hardy species that have been particularly hard hit, the winter that had not yet happened is making up for lost time. Frozen inshore waters have marooned many birds, keeping them from dependable food supplies. On land, finding unfrozen drinking water has become hugely important, forcing many birds to alter their winter routines. Wink and Nan Winkleman on East Chop in Oak Bluffs were surprised to find a Baltimore oriole visiting their birdbath on Jan. 26, the first bitterly cold day of the winter. The oriole was in desperate need of water and managed to find their bird bath.

Starvation is a real and constant threat. As birds get hungrier and weaker they are forced to spend more and more time foraging, disregarding potential dangers. The hardest hit birds are the raptors, hawks and owls, which have to catch small, fast prey. Their numbers are always a tiny percentage of other birds and when times are tough their numbers are proportionally harder hit. It is a very hard way to make a living.

Great black-backed gulls, the largest gull species in the world, are slow, clumsy predators that take full advantage of temporary food resources that present themselves. As buffleheads, common goldeneyes, red-breasted mergansers, and a myriad of other ducks are forced into smaller and smaller pieces of open water, the gulls begin targeting the birds. They sit on the shore or ice watching and constantly harassing them until eventually they grab one.

Land birds, especially frugivores (fruit- and berry-eating species) are in a similar bind. When they finish off the berries of one tree or grove of trees, they are forced to find new food sources. The colder it gets, the more they have to eat and the faster they deplete whatever food there is.

Large mixed flocks of American robins, cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds and smaller numbers of several other species are very effective at eating all the berries off trees in a short period of time.

Bluebirds have been delighting people all over the Island. The shocking, intense blue of these birds is visually stunning. Human observers fortunate to see them are then often compelled to verbalize their encounters. This is a very nice thing. Bluebirds are not easy to forget once seen at close range. Calls about these ridiculously beautiful birds have been far and away the most frequent to the busy bird line.

The numbers of bluebirds wintering on the Vineyard is impressive. While it is not possible to determine the exact number, it seems clear that there are several hundred. Flocks of anywhere from five to 80 individuals, often associating with robins and cedar waxwings are being reported from Aquinnah to Chappaquiddick. It is really a treat to see and hear people get so excited about these birds. The enthusiasm quite naturally carries over to other bird species and may lead to (oh no) an interest in other birds.

Jeff Chapman in Edgartown has had a roving flock of around 40 bluebirds appear periodically at his house. His yard has many bird boxes and at times five or six bluebirds "pig-pile" into one box. This has a lot of survival value in extreme cold temperatures as the birds conserve much needed heat and energy when they roost together. It is quite a sight to see lovely bluebirds all over his yard and "playing" in small groups coming and going in and out of boxes.

Chuck Wiley called to report a robin that is territorial and protecting a holly tree from other birds that would like to eat the berries. While this is typical of northern mockingbirds, in fact it is their normal behavior as they try to run off all interlopers because they are depending on this berry supply to make the winter; it is most unusual for an American robin. The robin in question has been driving off a small flock of bluebirds. This is a strange turn of events.

If you feed birds, keep the feeders filled, as the feathered creatures are right up against the elements struggling to survive.

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.