Birds

Double-crested Cormorant
This immature Double-crested Cormorant is taking a break from chasing fish and drying off its waterlogged feathers. Check out the bird's eye color. This species is massing in Island estuaries right now feeding voraciously on small fish as the birds prepare to head further south for the winter. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

West winds equals rare birds

By E. Vernon Laux - November 1, 2007

The end of October has become the best time to find rare birds, not only on the Vineyard but along the entire Eastern Seaboard from Prince Edward Island to Florida. With increasing numbers of observers everywhere (many more highly skilled observers than ever before as people are really "getting into" birding) and with a plethora of new field guides and better optics, it might seem that the birds can hardly escape detection. Wrong. A tiny fraction, probably less than one per cent of migrant birds get found.

Forget the needle in the haystack, the odds of a small bird alighting where one can actually see it well and study it are tiny. Most birds, nocturnal flying machines covering vast distances, are never seen by human observers. I derive great pleasure when looking at Arctic hatched immature sandpipers in the fall, the birds absolutely oblivious to the hulking mammal (me) that outweighs them thousands of times. They allow for a close approach and excellent views. Fortunately, I only want to shoot them with a camera, but in other parts of the world they may be killed and eaten. I am likely the first human these birds have ever come in contact with.

Island sightings

At any rate the Island had some very good birds this past week, two species of extreme rarity that were found, identified, and photographed by West Tisbury resident Lanny McDowell. Mr. McDowell is to be congratulated for his excellent finds and fantastic documentation. For a few days he had a hummingbird, an immature type, visiting his hummingbird feeder. Realizing that any hummingbird after Oct. 1, in the northeast is likely not a ruby-throated hummingbird but some western species he took an extensive series of photos.

These notoriously hard to identify birds, while difficult to separate from one another, are not impossible and certain tail and wing feathers are subtly different on various species. His pictures revealed the shape of the outermost wing feather, the primary, to be club-shaped at the tip. This is diagnostic for a bird very similar to a ruby-throated hummingbird, in the same Genus but a separate species called the black-chinned hummingbird. They nest from Washington State to southern Arizona and winter south from western Mexico.

He also was able to get pictures of the few feathers on the throat that show color, purple not red, making it certain that this bird was a black-chinned hummingbird. But just to remove all doubt he called Sue Finnegan, an expert bander and skilled in the art of handling and identifying hummingbirds to come from Brewster and catch it, band it and remove any speculation about this bird's specific identity. She came to the Island and did all of the above on Saturday, Oct. 27. This is either the third or fourth record of this species in Massachusetts history.

On the morning of Oct. 24, Mr. McDowell and Allan Keith of Chilmark were birding the Gay Head Cliffs when a bird dropped out of the sky and landed nearby. It was a Townsend's solitaire, a nifty bird from the Pacific Northwest that winters from southern Mexico further south. Both observers had seen this species before and knew what it was. Mr. McDowell managed a few pictures before the bird did what got it to the Island - it flew away. This is only the second record for this species ever being seen on Martha's Vineyard.

On the water

Most impressive is the bird life currently on the waters surrounding the Island. Virtually every stretch of water along the coast of the Vineyard is covered with some kind of bird. Off East Beach and along the south shore are tens of thousands of large sea ducks in the form of common eiders and scoters. These ducks are here to enjoy the bounty of food, namely the underwater beds of blue mussels that sustain them through the winter months.

Along the Nantucket Sound coastline stretching from West Chop in Vineyard Haven to Cape Pogue are large flocks of red-breasted mergansers. These medium-sized, fish-eating ducks, with serrated edges to their beaks the better to hold slippery small fish with, are cooperatively chasing small fish underwater. The fish often try to escape by coming to the surface where they are met by a bevy of small gulls, including ring-billed, still dozens of lingering laughing gulls, and small tern-like Bonaparte's gulls, whose numbers are increasing daily. Any day razorbills, small black and white alcids, penguin look-alikes, will join the fray as well.

Northern gannets and both red-throated and common loons have been widespread and increasing in numbers over the past week in area waters.

The land bird migration has perceptibly diminished but not completely ended. The morning of the Oct. 30 at the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah dawned with clear, light northwest winds, ideal conditions for migration. There had been a large movement of birds during the night, and thousands of American robins, red-winged blackbirds, and yellow-rumped warblers led the exodus of birds heading west, back to the mainland, at dawn.

The flats on Sarson's Island in Sengekontacket Pond and along Norton's Point in Edgartown have been teeming with birds. Dozens of greater yellowlegs, hundreds of black-bellied plovers, as well as hundreds of sanderlings and dunlins with upwards of a dozen American oystercatchers have been seen daily. Lastly, waterfowl are moving everywhere and any ponds that one likes to look at should be checked during the next week. Snow buntings have arrived in small flocks along outer beaches and were seen in at least five separate locations on Oct. 29.

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 vernlaux@comcast.net.