Merlin the magician. These small falcons are common during the fall migration, and they winter in small numbers on the Island. Always hungry, seemingly, they rely on stunning aerial maneuvers to capture small birds on the wing, often in protracted flights over open water. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

February comes to an end

By E. Vernon Laux - February 22, 2007

Despite brutally cold weather for the past couple of weeks, there is good news: this is the last week of the shortest and most inhospitable month across the Northern Hemisphere. In the birds' world, the upcoming breeding season is already moving to the forefront. Dawn is greeted by increasing bird song from virtually all resident species. Keep an ear out for the snappy, melodious, staccato calls of the Carolina wren; the whistled, two-syllable love calls of the black-capped chickadee; the varied songs of the song sparrow; and the loud and far-carrying song of the northern cardinal. All are harbingers of the rapidly approaching change in seasons. Nothing sounds like spring in the air quite like the drumming and calls of our various woodpecker species.

It is also hard not to notice that the photoperiod, the length of day, is increasing. Sunrise and sunset are getting earlier and later, respectively. This increasing day length is the trigger for birds' endocrine systems to change, which causes them to sing and begin to defend territories. Spend even a little time watching the bird feeders and you will notice the changing "attitude," the behavioral changes in virtually all species of birds that the changing season brings.

Speaking of bird feeders, the Island is virtually awash in some unusual woodpeckers visiting suet feeders. Most unusual are the presence of not one but two yellow-bellied sapsuckers visiting feeders in both West Tisbury and Tisbury. The proud hosts at both locations have photographed the birds and it seems that there are two males and two females, one of each at both locations. Perhaps these woodpeckers have visited in the past because single birds had been seen at feeders for the past 15 years.

The increase in interested and competent observers who are paying close attention, in this case Harvey Garneau of West Tisbury and Janet Woodcock of Tisbury, is the reason that these fairly hard-to-identify birds were detected and reported. Congratulations to both observers for carefully and cautiously identifying and verifying these birds. Both were able to obtain excellent, identifiable digital photos and they were kind enough to share their sightings, adding new information about this species on the Vineyard.

These sapsuckers breed commonly in western Massachusetts, scarcely in the central part of the state and not at all in the eastern or southeastern part of the state. They are unknown as breeders from anywhere near the Cape and Islands. So while it is intriguing that possible or seeming "pairs" of birds are over-wintering, it is improbable and unlikely that they will stay and breed on the Vineyard. It will be interesting to keep an eye on these birds and see when and if they depart for points north and west.

Red-wings arrive

A trickle of migration has begun with the first migrant red-winged blackbirds arriving. Most of these birds are transient, staging here before continuing onward when conditions improve. Lanny McDowell noted two male red-wings at his feeders, where there have been none all winter, on Feb. 15. Two males were singing at Farm Neck Golf Course in Oak Bluffs on Feb. 17. This species should increase rapidly and flocks will arrive over the next couple of months, every time the wind blows from the southwest.

They will not be alone as common grackles and brown-headed cowbirds show up shortly after red-winged blackbirds and often occur in mixed flocks with them, starting as early as next week. It is fun and educational to scan through flocks of blackbirds checking the identity of individual birds. There is rather extreme dimorphism in red-winged blackbirds, the males and females look very different. If not familiar with the difference consult a field guide and familiarize yourself with the quite different looking sexes. Brown-headed cowbirds, brood parasites, are also dimorphic and check on the difference between the males and females as well.

American robins are also on the move as migrant flocks are showing up in places where they have not been all winter. Sally Segal, who lives off Lambert's Cove Road in West Tisbury, reported a large flock in her yard on Feb. 18. Other flocks will be arriving soon, and once the temperature climbs to slightly above freezing robins will be seen on fields, lawns, and gardens, where they have been absent for months.

The most action occurring in and around the Island is on the near shore waters where waterfowl are courting and preparing to depart for more northerly breeding grounds. There are hours of fascinating viewing available virtually 10 minutes from any point on the Island. The ducks, loons, grebes, and gulls are engaging in all sorts of courtship displays and preparing for migration. The tidal estuaries, ponds, and shorelines are alive with bird life; check them out with binoculars or better still a spotting scope.

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