Birds

Cooper's hawk
This Cooper's hawk was attracted by a ring-necked pheasant calling from under these shrubs. The hawk was trying to find the source of the sound, but after a few minutes gave up and flew off in search of an easier meal. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Hurricane or nor'easter, Noel was no holiday

By E. Vernon Laux - November 8, 2007

A brutish but thankfully fast-moving storm, Noel punished the Vineyard on Saturday, Nov. 3. The winds whistled from the northeast, driving rain sideways. Conditions could not have been worse. The storm passed and conditions just 12 hours later were balmy with little wind. What a difference a day makes.

The storm caused some damage to shingled roofs and took down quite a number of trees. When the wind blows that hard with heavy rain it is almost impossible for leaks not to occur. But mostly, due to the speed of the storm, the Island dodged major damage.

The storm produced few, if any, exciting birds for the Vineyard as Cape Cod and Nantucket act as buffers during Nor'easters for sea birds. During the storm and the morning after there was a typical sea bird bonanza in Cape Cod Bay, particularly at the renowned hot spot First Encounter Beach in Eastham. Anyone interested in sightings can check out massbird.org and see all the reports. Huge numbers of northern gannets were reported as well as lots of jaegers, falcon-like seabirds, and alcids.

Sally Anderson of West Tisbury was birding the Gay Head Cliffs on Nov. 1 in a strong wind when she had a bird fly rapidly by, causing her to ponder. She ran across the parking lot after it, relocated the bird perched and was able to identify it as an immature northern shrike - a rare bird on the Island and always a good find.

These robin-sized "butcher birds" are perching birds with feet just like a sparrow but a beak like a hawk's. They capture mice, small birds and insects using their strong hooked beak. They are birds that live and breed in the far north, sporadically appearing south during some winters.

She also had good views of a yellow-breasted chat, a stunning bird that is one of the best looking birds in North America. Taxonomists currently classify this bird as our largest warbler, but there is growing evidence that it belongs with the tanagers. If you are not familiar with this species take a look in a field guide. They are also always a very good find but a few usually attempt to over-winter. They are very secretive and are adept skulkers, making them very hard to find and get a good look at.

This past week has seen quite a few winter finches appear. A few pine siskins, common redpolls, and a couple of evening grosbeaks were heard overhead on Nov. 5 along the south shore in Chilmark. While red-breasted nuthatches continue to be almost everywhere, other irruptive finches are starting to appear. Snow buntings are also moving through on various beaches and their distinctive calls can be heard from quite a distance as they fly about calling.

The waters surrounding the Island have an outlandish number of birds on them - especially the waters east of Chappaquiddick that, when viewed through binoculars at dawn, appear to have no defined surface. There are vast numbers of sea ducks, common eiders, and all three species of scoter, creating a visual tempest as they fly about in spectacular numbers.

The birds are repositioning themselves after a night of drifting with the currents. They fly up-current of the extensive sandbars and underwater mussel flats that hold these birds here and drift over the flats, actively diving and feeding. The current is so strong that they must go with the flow and after drifting with it over the best feeding areas, they fly back and drift or float the route again.

The numbers of waterfowl utilizing Nantucket Sound and Muskeget Channel as well as the waters on the south side of the Vineyard are a national treasure. Nowhere else on the planet can one find such vast numbers and diversity of wintering waterfowl. It speaks to the water quality, due to little industrial pollution, and the area is the most important wintering area for these birds in the western North Atlantic Ocean. For this reason alone, it makes no sense to put up 24 square miles of massive wind turbines in an area that plays host to hundreds of thousands of sea ducks for five months of the year.

Lastly, lots of small Bonaparte's gulls have begun to show up in Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds. These tern-like gulls are really fun to watch as they hover and dive after small fish that are being driven to the surface as they are pursued by cormorants, red-breasted mergansers, razorbills, or fish. They are in small roving flocks and can be seen almost anywhere as they are passing by the Vineyard for points further south.

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 email vern-laux@comcast.net.