Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead, Canada Geese, Mute Swan
This winter waterfowl scene, not an uncommon sight with brutal cold temperatures, shows a male Hooded Merganser in the foreground middle with a female Bufflehead (just visible behind it), several Canada Geese, and the "gorilla" in the pond, a Mute Swan. As freezing conditions shrink available water to swim in, birds are forced to co-mingle much more than they would prefer. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Changeover month

By E. Vernon Laux - February 8, 2007

The month of February, while generally cold and nasty, is a study in contrast; it is a changeover month. While seemingly bleak and forbidding, especially during this recent cold spell, there is much going on in the natural world. It is not like a "changeover week or month" as commonly used during the summer months but a change to more sunlight and longer days. The month that "breaks the back of winter" so to speak, as the orbit of the earth around the sun proceeds on its annual journey. It is a time of great change in the natural world, the real world, for all living organisms.

The photoperiod, also known as the length of day, is steadily increasing. In other words, that big heater in the sky has been turned up in the northern hemisphere. Despite the cold, there is an ever-growing amount of sunlight from now until June 21, and life at this latitude is intimately keyed into it.

This triggers big changes in life for plants and animals. It really kicks in for birds, and changes are readily evident wherever one looks. Behavior of resident birds is changing and territorial displays and attempts at bird song occur on many mornings. Migration has already begun, especially to the south of us as a few hardy species have begun to return north from more southerly wintering areas.

Birds are also beginning to look different, as they grow new feathers in a process called molting. Many birds grow new body feathers twice a year. They replace flight feathers, those on the wing and tail, just once annually.

This past weekend, molt was detected on many individual birds. Herring gulls, the common sea gull to most, are losing the gray feathers on their heads and necks and becoming clean white for the upcoming breeding season. Upon close inspection, most individuals will show a slightly mottled appearance over the next couple of weeks, and then all the adults will be a bright, crisp white on the head and neck.

A small sandpiper called the dunlin, which spends the winter on Vineyard tidal flats, has a dimorphic plumage, both males and females. In winter it is a nondescript gray bird. In summer breeding plumage it is a snazzy-looking, red-backed, black-bellied beauty full of rich colors. Some individuals are already beginning to show a "shadow" of a black-belly. Although in this instance the black of these feathers is obtained by feather wear, not molt.

Many birds change into a breeding plumage. Some acquire this plumage by molting; others, by feather wear. Most people are familiar with the European starling, a prolific bird on Martha's Vineyard and most of the rest of the continent. They change their look from winter to summer primarily by feather wear. Check them out periodically and take note of whether the individual feathers have white tips or not.

There is lots of action out on the waters around the Island. The cormorants commonly found around the Vineyard during mid-winter - the great or European cormorant, seen in fair numbers off of West Chop, in Vineyard Haven, and on the rocks off Aquinnah and other areas - are molting into their breeding plumage. They develop a bright white flank patch on an otherwise black plumage, as well as a whitish frosted appearance on the head and neck. They are quite striking as they fly past or stand on a rock.

Dawn at any favorite beach will provide glimpses of many species moving around. The waterfowl are already pairing off and will be departing northward on warm days during upcoming weeks. These incredibly tough birds are already on a tight schedule, trying to time their arrival on their breeding areas to the exact time that ice leaves the lakes and ponds where they breed. Loons and grebes are molting into breeding plumage and are in between plumages, making them rather funny looking.

Eastern bluebirds continue to excite and amaze people. There is nothing to compare to the sight of a flock of these shockingly colored "friendly" birds. They feed on berries (red cedar, a.k.a. juniper berries, a favorite) and allow fairly close approach at this season. Observers, both new and old, never cease to have their breath taken away by the sight. One does not tire of looking at bluebirds whether it is the first time or thousandth. Stunning is an apt description of the blue and reddish/orange color scheme. To the delight of all who see them, roving flocks of these birds ranging from a handful to 80 individuals or more, have been turning up Island-wide.

Migrant red-winged blackbirds, a species noted for its early return in spring, will appear during the next few weeks. While a small number overwinter, many more individuals will arrive on a southwest wind on or about Feb. 18. The males show up first, followed by the females, generally 10 to 14 days after the vanguard males.

Also, a welcome sound is increasingly in the air. Birds have begun to sing. Woodpeckers have started to drum and all evidence from the natural world is that spring is headed our way. Every morning, when the wind is not howling, features resident species tuning up, announcing their respective presence. It is a reminder, a precursor of warmer days ahead.

The bird line would be interested in hearing from you if you have hungry early migrants of any type visiting your feeders.

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