Birds

Canada goose
You lookin' at me? This "wild" Canada goose approached the photographer in hopes of a hand-out and all it got was its picture taken through a telescope with a digital camera hand-held on the eye-piece end.

Island heating up

By E. Vernon Laux - March 8, 2007

The spring season seems about ready to explode with an abundance of life. Mid-March is a funny time on the Vineyard in the natural world. Birds have clearly begun to migrate. Willing winter to be gone and summer to arrive, the season takes its own time. It is a case of three steps forward, two steps back. But it's heading steadily in the right direction.

For birders, gardeners, fishermen, and anyone else with an interest in the awakening of organisms and warming weather after the winter period of inactivity, time cannot move fast enough. All indications are that with the relatively mild winter and temperatures unseasonably above normal, excepting for a severely cold February and for the past few days that birds will arrive back from wintering areas ahead of schedule. It has been happening.

Piping plovers and American oystercatchers will arrive back on Island shores over the next few weeks. Oystercatchers are hard to miss and will be back on by month's end. These large, colorful, and hardy shorebirds are almost as much a sign of spring on the Island as are the return of the osprey. They are spectacularly marked. This gregarious and vociferous species - the favorite oystercatchers among birders, stands out at a fair distance on the drab beaches, tidal flats, and brown salt marshes of March.

Oystercatchers have been steadily increasing in the northeast for the past couple of decades. This is good news for both humans and oystercatchers. The reasons for this increase run the gamut - from better protection of nest sites to a cleaner environment.

The area these birds inhabit - beaches, tidal flats and salt marshes - must remain sufficiently free of pollutants for them to survive. Oystercatchers feed on a variety of mollusks, all sorts of shellfish and snails, marine worms and the odd small fish thrown in. They are near the top of the food chain on the tidal flats and thriving as a species.

Historically, John James Audubon reported oystercatchers as being present in Nova Scotia. This was greeted with considerable sarcasm in the birding community for many years as the birds rarely ventured north of Cape May, New Jersey. In the past few years the birds have continued northward and are now making it into Canada. A pair attempted (unsuccessfully) nesting in Nova Scotia four years ago for the first time in well over a century. New individuals and a smattering of species arrive weekly and daily, particularly when the wind is from the southwest.

The first osprey may very well make its appearance at any moment. The first arriving individuals generally arrive on or about March 18 - the earliest ever on March 15. By the first week of April ospreys are a common component of the Vineyard avifauna.

Bird song, as well as the calls of the widespread and plentiful little tree frog called the spring peeper, locally known as the pinkle-tink, are about to start in earnest. It will get noisy both at dawn and dusk as well as early evenings by the end of the month as the frogs begin preparing for another breeding season.

There have been some surprises in the past week. The number of yellow-bellied sapsuckers that spent the winter continues to grow with reports from Chilmark of another two birds bringing the total to at least seven individual birds visiting feeders. This is a tribute to the attention observers are paying to the visits that the birds provide. Sapsuckers are not easy to identify, and unless paying careful attention to detail and bird identification, many birders might misidentify them. Congratulations to the many sharp-eyed feeder watchers who are rapidly gaining in expertise at bird ID's.

Jules Ben David reports a female type Baltimore oriole from his Oak Bluffs yard and feeders. It seems this bird in all likelihood over-wintered and found his feeder a lifesaver during some very inhospitable weather. The seed and suet undoubtedly saved the bird from starvation.

Lastly, a unique tiny brown bird, called the brown creeper, the only North American representative of its family, has been reported with surprising frequency. As spring arrives they begin to sing and act, if this is possible for such small birds, in a much more obtrusive way than during most of the year. No doubt establishing and defending breeding territories, they are much easier to see at this season than during the rest of the year.

These funny birds make their way up and around tree trunks in a "creeping" manner like some sort of mouse-like woodpecker. They feed on small insects, spiders, egg cases, larvae or whatever insect matter they can find on and under pieces of bark.

If you see what you think is an osprey, get a pair of binoculars and make sure. Turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, both great black-backed and herring gulls and many other birds like to sit on the poles at this season. If it is an osprey, by all means call it in as soon as you can to the bird line.

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.