Vineyard Christmas Bird Count
The 48th Martha's Vineyard Christmas Bird Count was conducted on Saturday, Jan. 5. The count was enjoyed on one of the better weather days in many years, a lovely day that started cold but with no wind. Some 75 people took to the field and another 25 or so feeder reports showed a great spirit and enthusiasm on the Island for birding, with lots of active participation. The midnight-to-midnight search for birds on the Island on that day actually starts whenever the "owlers" decide to venture out and ends shortly after dark. It is an attempt to count every bird of every species on the Island.
"Mission Impossible" sums it up nicely, but that is not what the count is about. It is a fun and educational event each year that adds lots of knowledge about local bird populations and distribution, especially when viewed in the long term. This year's edition had a group of experienced and determined "owlers" setting out at 3 am into a frigid but calm morning, perfect for hearing and maybe even seeing owls.
The main "owling" group was anchored by Charles Morano, both father and son (different middle initials) of Edgartown, and additionally consisted of Peter and Jeremiah Trimble, father and son, of Mashpee and Cambridge, Marshall Iliff of Roxbury, and this writer. Armed with various spotlights and several expert owl imitators the group was quickly rewarded with lots of vocal, inquisitive owls. We were treated to exceptional views of a slew of small owls.
Most amazing was the diminutive saw-whet owl show. Some nine individual birds tooted, screamed, caterwauled, and were extremely responsive to imitations of their calls, or other owl species calls, and it was an early morning to remember. Aside from the stunning night sky, at least eight meteors seen streaking across the sky as they lit it up burning into the earth's atmosphere, and the unforgettable moonrise to the southeast with Jupiter just above the gibbous moon, it was the saw-whet owls that shined the most brightly for the fortunate observers.
The birds were tooting away at close range about 15 feet away allowing for extraordinary photo opportunities. One owl was photographed four feet over the photographer's head as it hovered in slow motion. No one present had ever experienced anything like this with this species, so no matter what followed the day was a success - before sunrise.
The saw-whet owls were not alone; 14 screech owls, many also putting on a vocal and visual display that will not be easy to forget, were also heard in the dark. A dawn, short-eared owl hunting the fields at Katama well into daylight with perfect windless hunting conditions was another treat. Barn owls were well reported from several different areas. Lastly among the owls, was the always pleasing and magnificent snowy owl, a large, powerful, diurnal species that was discovered out in the dunes heading towards Cape Pogue on Chappaquiddick by the group covering the beach. It was a great count for owls.
There were many highlights of which the following are my favorites. Harlequin ducks, which many observers feel are hands-down the prettiest ducks in the world, are in good supply on the Vineyard with some 125 individuals counted, mostly from Squibnocket Point in Chilmark. A drake Eurasian wigeon sitting on the beach at Eel Point in Edgartown, a recently dead drake king eider picked up on the landward side of the marsh at Eel Point as well, an extremely late great egret, maybe two were seen in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, a dickcissel at the aforementioned Moranos house in Edgartown, four Bohemian waxwings along the Beach Road in Edgartown, two yellow-breasted chats, lots of bluebirds that were reported from all six towns on the Island and the usual impressive numbers of waterfowl all made for a great count. The weather made it a great day to be in the field.
The total species count came in almost exactly the same on both the always slightly competitive Islands although as this went to press it appears Nantucket eked out one more species on count day with 129, the Vineyard ending up with 128 different species. This is not clad in stone, so please don't shoot the messenger if it changes more and one or the other edges out the other for highest total species for this season. Both islands had many Count Period birds, species seen three days either before or after the count that were not seen on count day.
The Vineyard count was the last Christmas Count held for this season; the next Count Period starts on Dec.14, 2008, so that is it about Christmas Bird Counts until then.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!
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