small horned grebe
Handsome, small horned grebes winter in small numbers around the Island, before departing in March for Arctic breeding grounds. Compared to this winter-plumaged bird, they will look entirely different in a few weeks when they begin to molt into their gaudy breeding plumage. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Winter's grip tightens up

By E. Vernon Laux - February 15, 2007

Thankfully, February is the shortest month. Characterized by frequent storms and brutal cold, it is not a nice month. It is unequivocally the most dangerous and daunting month of the year for birds that are spending the winter here. Finding liquid water to drink, food to eat, and conserving body heat head the list of priorities, as well as avoiding being eaten by hungry (desperate) predators. Birds that migrated south are looking good about now!

Predictably but nonetheless improbably, as cold and nasty as it has been and seemed, birds are responding to the increasing day length. Most mornings now, bird song can be heard. It is a welcome sound, soothing after being absent for many months. The songs remind us that longer and warmer days, and a new breeding season, is not far off.

The good news for wintering birds is that they only have a few more "bad" weeks to get through before conditions improve dramatically. The business of survival, day to day, is the first order of business for all wild creatures. This will become less difficult if they can make it through the rest of this month.

Snow cover, a rarity on the Island most winters, has a chance to accumulate, possibly, if the weather forecasters are correct and I guessed right a couple of days before this week's deadline. If it happens - and this will be obvious to even the most casual observer - then birds that had been ensconced in thickets and tangles for the winter will suddenly be forced elsewhere as their food sources will be covered in frozen white stuff.

Leaf litter and bare ground became a memory and birds will be forced to find alternate food sources. Bird feeders become jammed with not only birds that had been visiting them all winter but with "new" arrivals that are attracted by all the bird activity.

Due to the extreme cold spell reports have been coming in from feeder watchers all over the Island about "new" birds showing up in places where they had not been seen previously. Most exciting for feeder watchers in West Tisbury and Vineyard Haven have been the discovery and identification of a "strange" woodpecker. Harvey Garneau of West Tisbury had been studying not one but two woodpeckers coming to suet. He correctly surmised that they were that most outlandishly named woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, despite the field guides showing them departing the area for the winter.

He managed to get excellent digital photos of two different sapsuckers at his feeder. This is the first time I have ever heard of two coming to any feeding station on the Island. Another and quite different sapsucker has been delighting Janet Woodcock in Tisbury. This bird comes to the many and varied suet feeders she provides and has lots of company in the form of bluebirds, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, and tufted titmice. The place is rocking with birds.

The very cold temperatures have quickly shrunk available water, making for exceptional conditions for viewing waterfowl. The Head of the Lagoon and many other locations that feature just small patches of open water have concentrated birds nicely.

The Head of the Lagoon has been hopping; on Feb. 12 there were two pied-billed grebes, two American coot, 75 American wigeon, 30 ring-necked ducks, 6 gadwall, 6 red-breasted mergansers and a slew of other ducks - all offering superb views.

Eastern bluebirds, cedar waxwings, and American robins continue to impress human observers Island-wide. This is a good thing. The sight of any or all of these exquisitely marked birds, against the backdrop of the dark green of a red cedar, etches itself into memory. No matter how many times one sees them, it is a sight that never fails to impress. More calls come into the bird line with breathless and enraptured comments about bluebird sightings. They have quite an impact on all who see them.

Turkey vultures continue to be seen daily. There is a group of seven and another group of 10 individual birds that seem to stay together. They are currently a usual sight over downtown Vineyard Haven. They are roosting somewhere near the Tisbury School and wander widely during the day. The shores of the Lagoon and area around the airport appear to be a favored hunting area for them. The black vulture last seen on the Christmas Count has not been reported in several weeks.

If you are feeding birds, they need you now more than ever. This writer is very interested in reports of red-winged blackbirds appearing at feeders in the upcoming weeks so please call in if you get visited. Keep feeders full and scatter some seed on the ground as well.

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