Birds - Holidays and Christmas Bird Counts

By E. Vernon Laux - December 6, 2007

December is a month that is something of an anomaly. Despite having the least amount of daylight and the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, the month is action-packed and very busy. As if there were not enough things to do, for birders there is the added bonus - or penalty, depending on the weather - of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

The count period is the same every year and goes from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5. The Vineyard CBC will be on the last possible day, Saturday, Jan. 5. The reason it was moved back in time into next year was so that it would not conflict with neighboring counts on Nantucket and Cape Cod. Weekend days are far and away the best for people to be able to participate.

The first counts in our area will be the Buzzard's Bay on Dec. 15 and the Outer Cape on Dec. 16. The idea is to go out and attempt to count every single bird in a perfect circle. The circle has a center and everything within a seven and a half-mile radius (15-mile diameter) is included. The circle is divided into areas and a group is assigned to cover that specific area. Its mission is to go out and count every single bird of every species in that area. Impossible, of course, but those are the rules of the game.

Bonaparte's Gull
Bonaparte's Gulls - small, exquisite birds - are commonplace around the Island right now, feeding on small fish driven to the surface by feeding flocks of red-breasted mergansers, razorbills, or cormorants that pursue fish underwater. Photo by E. Vernon Laux. Click photo for larger version.

Possible reasons not to accept the mission, or participate on a CBC are legion. It's too cold, there is a football playoff game on, last-minute Christmas shopping, have to visit my family, going to be out of town, just had an operation, etc., etc. - all good, solid reasons not to go out and freeze one's "bippy" off for a day in early winter. But, believe it or not, participating in such a crazy event is fun and a learning experience. You also get to meet some fine people with likeminded interests.

The weather of late has been typically New England, characterized by strong, fast-moving frontal systems delivering rapidly changing and varied conditions. Cold befitting midwinter has already arrived and December to date is colder than it has been in many years. This bodes poorly for lingering birds that might be encountered on CBCs. As the freeze tightens, many semi-hardy species and lingering insectivore/frugivores begin to pay the ultimate price for not continuing south.

It always amazes me how fast another year, another round of migration, has flown by and is in the books, so to speak. Time flies when one is looking for birds, and birding on the Vineyard is exceptional at this season. Compared to other areas around New England and even farther south it is head and shoulders more exciting for numbers and variety of birds found during the winter months.

It seems that winter birding has been improving on the Island in the past couple of decades. Almost annually, more and more sea ducks, loons and grebes are remaining to over-winter whereas they were elsewhere or farther south in the past. Whatever the cause, whether it is directly attributable to global warming, food supplies, a temporary range change or something else, the fact that more birds are here is real.

Turkey vultures continue to increase and remain for the winter, whereas a decade ago they were rare here at any season. As many as ten individuals have been seen soaring around from Menemsha in Chilmark to Lake Tashmoo in Vineyard Haven. Usually one or two individuals are seen but occasionally as many as a dozen are being reported together, especially from downtown Vineyard Haven.

Vultures love to sun themselves, when that option is available. Unlike hawks and eagles, they have weak feet without strong, piercing talons and generally do not kill their food. They do occasionally catch living creatures and often subdue small birds, rodents, toads, and frogs in the warmer months when they get the chance, but they are not known to go after larger things.

There have been some interesting birds showing up all around the Island. Eastern bluebirds, those stunningly colored and exceptionally pleasing birds, are being widely reported. They are particularly attracted to heated birdbaths and will drop "out of the sky" to drink and bathe when they see one. This has been observed by a number of people during the past week from Chappaquiddick to Chilmark.

Tim Rich of Chilmark reported a female type Baltimore oriole that was seemingly glued to one of his feeders during the day on Dec. 2. He also noted a male purple finch, always a scarce and welcome visitor to any feeder. Lastly, Sue Kaeka of West Tisbury called in a rescue of a trapped yellow-breasted chat from her barn. The bird was carefully caught, photographed, and released from the unintended "trap" that it got itself into. I have yet to see the photo, but if it is a goody it will appear with this column in the near future.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!