Western tanager
This female Western tanager may be the first of its species ever seen in Massachusetts in March. The size, shape, and color of its bill, as well as its shape and distinctive pale wing-bars, confirm its identity. They breed in the mountains of western North America and winter in Central America. Photo by Lanny McDowell

Returning migrants

By E. Vernon Laux - March 29, 2007

The end of March and early April are an exciting time at this latitude in the natural world. The plants and animals are completely changing, metamorphosing, from either dormant or energy saving winter survival mode to it's time to live again! Life is literally, slowly, bursting out, all over the region. In the bird world, there is much activity, great changes all around and evidence of lots of bird migration.

A bird that is familiar and a favorite of Islanders, the osprey, has been returning to the Island in droves. This past week several telephone messages came in daily, reporting the return of birds to various nesting platforms. The satisfied tone in the callers' voices was evidence of the benefit and enjoyment derived from seeing one's first osprey of the year. Looking for ospreys is good for one's health.

The first report to reach me was of a bird seen on March 15 by Tim (not Ken) Scott of Edgartown at Oyster Pond. Then starting on March 20, reports became fast and furious. Hannah and Hailey Evans spotted a bird back at an Edgartown Harbor nest pole. March 21, Larry Schubert reports a pair back in Lobsterville in Aquinnah. March 22, ospreys back in Hidden Cove on the Edgartown/Oak Bluffs town line, also several birds seen on poles at Oyster Pond in Edgartown. March 23, ospreys reported from Chappaquiddick in Edgartown and Lake Tashmoo in Tisbury.

They are definitely back and will be a welcome and noisy sight in Vineyard skies during upcoming weeks. The birds are reuniting with old mates, or in some cases searching for a new one. Their far-carrying calls can be heard as pairs begin courtship rituals, which involve spectacular and lengthy flight displays. On sunny days there is not a speck of the Vineyard that cannot hear the calls of these life-affirming fish hawks as they prepare for another breeding season.

Piping plovers and American oystercatchers are also back in small numbers with more expected by the time you read this. Both these beach-nesting shorebirds are here to establish a territory, find a mate and raise young on heavily used Island beaches. They are competing for temporary use of the beach with much larger mammals, humans and four-wheeled-drive vehicles. If the birds can get started nesting without disturbance they can fledge young before the busy summer season. This is best for the birds and the people who would like unfettered access to the Island's fabulous beaches.

Sounds of spring

The mornings and evenings are both getting louder outdoors. The increase in intensity and volume of bird song has virtually doubled in the past week. American robins are setting up territories and their songs are a large part of the bird song in many areas. Woodpeckers are really vociferous at this season and these energetic and loud birds, while a pleasure to listen to, if they are drumming on your house, they can be annoying for a few weeks.

The nocturnal flight displays of the American woodcock are going strong. These funny-looking, robin-sized, woodland-loving shorebirds are a must- see. If you are not familiar with this bird, you must get a look at one in a field guide or find a picture online, as they are incredible. You owe it to yourself if you are living on the Island to witness the flight of the woodcock one evening during the upcoming week. The less wind the better but now is a very good time to experience this amazing display.

Just as dusk descends, these birds emerge from the woods, where they have been motionless in the leaf-litter during the day, and land out in a field, even if partially overgrown with small trees. They then begin a remarkable vocal and aerial display that involves a strange and distinctive "PEENTING" sound, bobbing around on the ground and then they launch themselves airborne with specialized stiffened feathers on their wings creating a twittering sound as they ascend in a broad high spiral before zigzagging in a descent resembling a semi-controlled crash from a considerable altitude. It is wondrous.

Western tanager

Lastly, with huge numbers of birds on the move across the continent, the bulk of which are still well to the south of New England, the early spring often provides unexpected birds turning up in unexpected places. Sally Anderson of West Tisbury noticed an unfamiliar bird at her feeder on March 25. The bird was drab and rather funny looking with a set of peculiar markings. Since she was not sure what it was, she took a series of photos. The perfectly good photos show a very drab, female Western tanager, a bird that should not be within several thousand miles of Martha's Vineyard. She did a great job getting the photos and in not forcing the bird's identity into something that it was not.

The bird was still there on March 26 and Allan Keith and Lanny McDowell managed to see it that morning. One of Mr. McDowell's photos (above) of this rather innocuous and confusing bird documents what appears to be the first record of a Western tanager occurring in March in the long ornithological record of Massachusetts. It is possible this bird just migrated in or it may have over-wintered here and is just getting ready to leave, finding Ms. Anderson's feeders in the process. Only the bird knows for sure and it is clearly not talking.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

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