Birds - Thanksgiving break turns into holiday stretch run

By E. Vernon Laux - November 29, 2007

Another holiday season has started and it always amazes me at how fast the season progresses and passes. This is a sure and certain sign of increasing longevity on this writer's part. For birders, especially those that participate in multiple Christmas Bird Counts (CBC), the season just seems to fly by in a whirlwind of social events and CBCs, which are in fact a form of social events, just different than Christmas or office parties.

The big bird, not Big Bird of Sesame Street fame, but the turkey, has provided yet another year of pleasurable culinary delight. Most readers will have been satiated, to an extreme, as they munch on hot turkey sandwiches (with stuffing) and think about heading for the beach or woods to walk off the impressive caloric intake of last week's feasting. It is beneficial for one's health, both mentally and physically. It offers a chance for fresh air and a chance to spend time with seldom seen family members or friends. It also provides an opportunity for those interested in the natural world to become more familiar with its workings.

Pine siskins
Pine siskins are small, rather non-descript finches that periodically invade our region. Notice the longish bill for a finch and heavy streaking on a gray bird. Despite being drab they are distinct and not hard to identify. Photo by E. Vernon Laux. Click photo for larger version.

After feeding heavily on a delicious cooked bird, it always seems like a good idea (at least to this writer) to go look for and at the abundance of live and wild birds that inhabit the Vineyard and its surrounding waters. It's what bird watchers do. Invariably, with all the people out walking off the traditional holiday eating frenzy, some unusual birds are found.

The stretch of warm weather this past week was welcomed by all fortunate enough to be out either working or playing in it. Delightful indeed was the weather over the Thanksgiving Holiday, resembling decent summer weather, especially on the water. Shorts and tee-shirts were good to go for Thanksgiving Day walking, a most unexpected treat.

A number of years ago over the Thanksgiving Holiday break, a bird called a long-billed murrelet, recently split from marbled murrelet into a new species, was discovered swimming and diving happily off a Rhode Island Beach. Murrelets are only found in the North Pacific Ocean, so the appearance of one of these birds of any kind in New England is newsworthy. They are small alcids, little penguin-like birds that have retained their ability to fly in the air as well as underwater. They are very inconspicuous.

Fortuitous is an understatement at the unprecedented discovery of this tiny bird on the ocean by a birder visiting the area for the holiday and then realizing what it was. He was walking off a feast the day after the holiday. The long-billed murrelet normally occurs off the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia and off of northern Japan. Hopefully, this will inspire Vineyarders with binoculars to go out and look carefully at whatever is around to see and find something incredible.

This year's sightings

The highlights of the past week were all off-Island it seems, with the exception of pine siskins and common redpolls. The redpolls are common if you live on Arctic tundra but are usually quite rare in this part of the world. They periodically invade the area about once every 15 winters, and this is the winter that it is happening. From single birds to flocks of 70 and 80, they have been heard and seen flying along the south shore or heading west off the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah.

Off-Island at Chatham at the "elbow" of Cape Cod several cave swallows were reported, seen on both Nov. 24 and 25. These birds nest in the southwestern U.S. or Mexico. They have been seen only once on the Vineyard, after strong westerly winds, a couple of years ago in November. A snowy owl was seen in Yarmouth in the mid-Cape area as well. On Nantucket on Nov. 24 and 25 was another southwestern bird in the form a white-winged dove, along with two western kingbirds, a pine grosbeak, a great egret, hundreds of common redpolls, two black guillemots, 50 lesser black-backed gulls and three common moorhens.

There were exceptional views of tens of thousands of sea ducks off the Gay Head Cliffs. Birds stretched across Vineyard Sound almost all the way to Cuttyhunk Island to the northwest. At least that is how it appeared in a spotting scope. Common eiders reigned supreme in terms of total numbers but impressive flocks of all three scoter species were thick on the water and in the air as well. Watching a boat rounding Gay Head and heading south to Nomans Land, birders saw enormous flocks lifting like living comforters off the water in undulating masses at the boat's approach. The water was covered and the sky filled with vast numbers of ducks.

The ducks were not alone as several hundred common loons were seen and approximately 20 red-throated loons as well. Small numbers of Bonaparte's gulls, a handful of lingering laughing gulls, and small but steady numbers of northern gannets were about. Keep an eye out at bird feeders for visiting winter finches in the form of purple finch, pine siskin, common redpoll and possibly evening or pine grosbeaks as they have all been seen at feeders on Cape Cod.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

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