Birds

Marbled Godwit
The discovery of a lone Marbled Godwit last week in Memensha thrilled Island birders. These handsome shorebirds are very rare on the Vineyard and unheard of in March. This represents the only sighting of this bird ever recorded from the Vineyard in March. As this went to press the bird was still present, visiting various tidal flats and sand bars depending on the tide. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Rare Shorebird Visitor

By E. Vernon Laux - March 15, 2007

A marbled godwit was discovered hunkered down along the Aquinnah side of Menemsha Creek by Scott Stephens at the tail end of last week's record-breaking cold snap. Mr. Stephens spotted the bird on Friday, March 8, huddling with a group of gulls. This represents one of the few winter records for Massachusetts and the only March record for the Vineyard. All godwits are rare on the Vineyard and winter sightings rarer still.

Godwits are large sandpipers with long upturned bills. Of the four godwit species on the planet, the marbled is the largest, but it has the most restricted range. This species breeds in the Canadian Prairie Provinces and winters along both the Pacific Coast south to central Mexico and along the Gulf Coast. The other three species - the Hudsonian godwit, the bar-tailed godwit, and the black-tailed godwit - are among the greatest long-distance migrants on the globe, nesting in the Arctic and wintering in the southern hemisphere.

This bird was continuing to be seen at various points, sand bars and tidal flats from both the Chilmark and Aquinnah sides of Menemsha Pond over this past weekend. It has been seen by a score of Island birders and was a really good find by Mr. Stephens.

Pulse of life

Relentlessly, inexorably, time keeps on rolling into the future. Creatures living in the natural world are finely tuned to the planet's annual rhythm as it describes its elliptical course about the sun. Spring, the reawakening of life after winter's dormancy, has finally arrived, if not officially on the calendar yet, it has in the natural world.

Bird song increases daily in volume and intensity. Each new day is greeted by birds singing, with the first notes being uttered in complete darkness. Woodpeckers seem "out of control" on many mornings at this season as their staccato hammering and calls emanate from even marginally wooded landscapes.

Not only is there an increase in song, but bird behavior is changing as well. Birds that were keeping close company with each other a couple of weeks ago are now intolerant of each other, refusing to share a bird feeder. The establishment of breeding territories has begun.

Each is responding to a changing endocrine system that is pumping hormones into their bodies and preparing them for the upcoming breeding season. This requires a big change in behavior from winter mode. Foremost is the need to establish and defend a territory. Hence the birds increase in aggression, with growing intolerance toward others of its own kind.

Red-winged blackbirds, northern cardinals, mourning doves, American robins, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, song sparrows, and eastern bluebirds can all be heard singing most mornings and again near dusk. They are already defending territories and courting. Some will begin nest building in the near future.

On the shore and beach there is a veritable maelstrom of activity. Great black-backed and herring gulls are displaying to each other and pairing off. Out on the elbow of Cape Pogue, the gulls are already standing around defending territories in the beach grass. They are brilliant at this season as their beaks and orbital (eye) rings get brighter, a fiery bright orange/yellow that screams look at me.

Any day now, American oystercatchers, those wild and wacky denizens of sand bars and mud flats, will start showing up from more southerly wintering climes. These unmistakable birds, about the size of but otherwise not at all similar to pigeons, have long orange beaks and a distinctive black and white plumage. They are gregarious, noisy, and well-liked by humans sharing the beach with them.

Oystercatchers are in direct contrast to the small, non-descript, sand-colored, threatened piping plover that lives right on the outer beach and lays its eggs on the open exposed sand. These tiny summer residents begin to arrive back for the summer much earlier than human visitors. Generally by the end of this month, many have returned back to establish territories on very cold, uninviting looking stretches of beach.

American woodcock are beginning to display with fervor on warm evenings and are staying at it longer than just a week ago. Spring is busting out all over. Red-tailed hawks are engaging in courtship flight displays, uttering their piercing screams and engaging in nest building. Rare is the sunny day when these birds are not seen soaring about anywhere one happens to be on the Island.

The waters surrounding the Island are alive with migrant birds and dawn will find flocks of migrating scoters and eiders as well as lines of loons moving north and east along Island shores. It is an excellent time of year to begin looking at birds, whether you ever have before or not. Check it out, you will get to explore this lovely Island and learn something of the feathered inhabitants as well.

Ospreys return

The return of the Island's ospreys begins any day. They are remarkably punctual in their annual return to former nest sites. Maybe even today, March 15, one or a handful of birds will arrive. Most years the first birds are spotted checking out their nest poles from last season anywhere from March 17 thru 21. As this is a fascinating topic and subject to local bragging rights, please let us know with a phone report of your first sighting over the next couple of weeks.

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.