red-tailed hawk
This female red-tailed hawk was perched about eight feet away from a smaller male in the same dead pine tree, looking out for a rabbit or rat for its Thanksgiving meal. These successful predators are common Island-wide in winter.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Holiday break

By E. Vernon Laux - November 21, 2007

The end of November is an exciting time of year on the Vineyard. From a birding perspective, the birding on the Island is fabulous - better than anywhere else in New England at this season. The possibility of some extralimital vagrant, the sheer numbers of birds still around that over-winter here, and the lovely light and scenery of late autumn, all combine to make being on the Island for Thanksgiving something to be truly grateful for.

It is rewarding and necessary to get out for a walk or hike to a favorite beach or woodland after heavy holiday feeding.

Away from the beach

Land birds that vacate northern and inland areas arrive to spend the winter in our comparatively mild climate with requisite shelter and food-rich thickets. The coastal tangle of thickets found on the Vineyard provide dense cover for protection from predators and the elements, as well as food in the form of lots of berries that support greater numbers of land birds in the winter than anywhere else in New England. Lots of white-throated sparrows make the thickets a lively and noisy place even in the dead of winter.

Many birds that are abundant in Vineyard thickets in winter are scarce to nonexistent inland during the winter. Eastern bluebirds and American robins are moving about in large flocks, Island-wide. Most of these birds have arrived from further north and are here to spend the winter eating berries, especially the juniper berries on the misnamed red cedar, which is really a juniper.


Most gratifying and impressive and of extreme interest to birding enthusiasts are the numbers of birds that arrive to spend the winter in the waters surrounding the Island. The number of birds that winter between Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, feeding in Muskeget Channel, is a marvel. The waters along the west end of the Island from Lucy Vincent Beach in Chilmark to Aquinnah are also chock-a-block full of wintering sea ducks and is faraway the best place in the state to see perhaps the most beautiful duck in the world, the harlequin.

Should one desire to burn off some calories and move about after feasting, grab a pair of binoculars (or better yet a spotting scope) and head down to the closest beach. Check out the birds that are sitting on, flying over and diving under the water's surface. If you happen to be looking west from the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah, south from the Squibnocket parking lot in Chilmark or east from Wasque on Chappaquiddick in Edgartown, the resulting view will be substantially more rewarding.

From virtually any location, one will see both common and red-throated loons. These fish-loving birds are relatively large and actively pursue fish in nearshore waters. Take a look in a field guide at these species and then try to differentiate them on the water's surface. With a little practice, you will soon separate them with ease, given adequate views.

Areas that have lots of loons generally indicate the presence of good numbers of fish, which also attract red-breasted mergansers. These sleek ducks, which have long bills with serrated edges for holding slippery fish, often fish together in loosely organized flocks, much like double-crested cormorants. They will form a line and drive small fish towards a shoreline, shoal, or other barrier and attempt to corner and catch them.

This in turn attracts small gulls in the form of Bonaparte's gulls and occasionally some other species. It is always a good idea to check out feeding groups of gulls and see what other birds are in the mix. The smallest gull in the world, appropriately named the little gull, is almost regular this week, mixed in with feeding Bonaparte's. They have been found four years out of five over this Thanksgiving period so keep a sharp eye out for this tiny, round-winged bird. Adults look much different than immatures so check your field guide before you head out.

Virtually any gull species may appear in a feeding frenzy of gulls chasing bait. Oftentimes on this date, especially a little farther from shore, small black-and-white alcids called razorbills drive the bait to the surface for the gulls to chase. These handsome birds are worth watching all by themselves, but when feeding they spend 97 per cent of their time underwater so one has to look quickly.

Whenever razorbills are located, keep a sharp eye out for another small gull, the black-legged kittiwake, which shadow razorbills. They are both highly pelagic species, generally found well offshore. But if food, in the form of small fish, is abundant, they will follow it inshore and take advantage of the bonanza. These are all things to look for this weekend and throughout the winter as one visits the headlands, points and beaches around the Island's perimeter.

Lastly, northern finches are having an irruptive year and showing up in numbers all over the place. So far on the Vineyard, there have not been any huge flocks but we are beginning to get to the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Pine siskins have been seen in small to medium-sized flocks and flocks of common redpolls have been moving into the area for the past two weeks. It seems that many other species are heading this way as well.

I hope that all have a lovely Thanksgiving and find time to get out and look for birds. If you go out and actively look for birds, you won't be disappointed.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!