Birds - Goodbye, 2007

By E. Vernon Laux - December 27, 2007

The end of the year is upon us already, after what's felt like a veritable blur since last New Year's. Perhaps it is inevitable with advancing years, that this writer is becoming a bit long in the tooth, so to speak, which makes time seem to pass in an ever more rapid fashion. Or because all the memories of dates and places, and what birds were seen when and where, become a blur when out looking for birds. Or it could just be a very normal "joie de vivre" and excitement at having lived through another year and looking forward to the upcoming one. At any rate, Happy New Year! May the year 2008 bring you good health and much happiness.

The start of the New Year will begin with a big, annual event, which gets lots of people out into the cold. The annual Martha's Vineyard Christmas Bird Count (CBC) will be conducted on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2008. The weather will be whatever it will be, but this does not deter otherwise sane individuals from staying out in brutally cold weather and throwing themselves into the task of finding and counting every bird on the Island.

yellow-breasted chat
Generally rare, the yellow-breasted chat is occasionally found in winter on the Vineyard. With a bright yellow breast, green back, and white "spectacles," it's a welcome sight in a winter thicket. Photo by E. Vernon Laux. Click photo for larger version.

Results and discussion of the count will appear in this column on Jan. 10. Highlights of the Nantucket CBC, which is being conducted on Dec. 29, will be covered in next week's column. The sister islands have a friendly competition that extends beyond high school sports. Each year, the islands' CBCs are among the top counts in the region. Biased as this writer may be, they are also far and away the most exciting counts to participate in with a large number of participants and even larger number of birds. They are fun and educational. Aside from giving us a relatively complete snapshot of birdlife Island-wide on that day, they bring many people from varied backgrounds with a common interest together to share a common experience. CBCs are a very good thing, indeed.

Another year has passed and the record of what avian life has been seen is in the books. It was a great year to watch birds, as is every year, and the fall witnessed the spectacle of bird migration that is the most exciting in all of New England. The Vineyard in September and October is fantastic for birding.

The western tip of the Island experiences an outrageous assemblage of southbound migrants that "jump-off" back to the mainland from the neck of this funneling point many mornings in the fall. The numbers of birds that can be seen can total in the many thousands and the variety of species runs the gamut from loons to warblers and sparrows. Nocturnal migrants that have overshot the land realize their mistake at dawn and turn back west for the mainland, concentrating at the Gay Head Cliffs before flying across back over open water.

The fall migration was notable for lots of birds, notably big numbers of sparrows and finches. No fewer than a dozen clay-colored sparrows were seen, a species that formerly was quite rare but is increasing in the northeast and was discovered breeding on Cape Cod this past summer.

The Gay Head Cliffs is the prettiest spot on the entire eastern seaboard to witness the migration of falcons and accipiters. During October there were occasions when as many as ten peregrine falcons, several merlins and dozens of accipiters were all flying over and heading off from this very scenic and bird-filled location.

The waters surrounding the Island have been alive with birds, and totals from the CBC should be most impressive this year. It is an unusual day indeed when all the birds feeding and resting in waters around the Island get counted on one day and this is a great benefit derived from the CBC. The aggregate represents one of the highest concentrations of winter wildlife anywhere in this part of the world. Loons, grebes and vast numbers of sea ducks accompanied by gulls that kleptoparasitize them are counted.

Lastly, Lanny McDowell of West Tisbury got an early Christmas present in the form of a bohemian waxwing at the Polly Hill Arboretum on the first day of winter, Dec. 21. These incredibly marked, subtly beautiful birds from the far north woods are always a rarity this far south. They have been seen elsewhere in the state this winter, but this is the first reported from the Vineyard. It was feeding on crabapples with cedar waxwings.

Until next year - keep your eyes to the sky. And again, have a Happy New Year!