The shortest month of the year seems headed towards spring already. Still reeling from the morning after the Super Bowl this week, it has already been a tough month. The days are noticeably longer as evidenced by the time of sunset with each advancing week. This week each day has been gaining almost three minutes of light and the sun now sets after 5 pm. It is great to get out of work and be able to see one's surroundings and enjoy the sunsets. Very mild weather for the season is occurring and it has "tricked" some birds into beginning their seasonal migrations early.
Reported this past week from at least four locations were small numbers of male red-winged blackbirds. While some fortunate observers have small numbers of red-wings all winter, these were at locations where there had been none. This hardy species is widespread and abundant as a breeding species across much of North America. Locally, on the Vineyard, the male of the species appear, like clockwork, from Feb. 18 to the 23, year after year, despite the weather.
Ruled by the photoperiod that regulates their endocrine system, the birds have little choice but to follow the chemical imperatives dictated by inherited genetic information from prior generations. It is evolution at work, as they are invisibly pulled north by the sun's changing position in the sky. The birds are on there way north to reach breeding areas ahead of rival males in the race to perpetuate the species.
By arriving first or early at breeding grounds, birds get to choose the best areas and are consequently most attractive to arriving females that are approximately 10 to 14 days behind the males. In this particular species the male arrives, determines the best areas (to his mind what a female would go for) and then sets up a fierce defense of it against rival males. The key is to arrive before other males but not so early that snow, ice, and inclement weather make it impossible to find food. It is a delicate balancing act that does not always have a happy result.
At any rate the balmy conditions, with remarkably mild conditions early this month, have "fooled" a few birds into moving north exceptionally early. The aforementioned red-winged blackbirds are certainly migrants and should conditions deteriorate, as one might expect in this cruelest of months, they will be hard pressed to survive.
On the waters surrounding the Island, the sea ducks are actively courting. Watch any group of ducks that you can get a good view of and you will witness all kinds of interesting behavior. Displays with heads thrown back, chases, groups of males or females rushing around - there is a lot of action out on the water right now.
Out in Vineyard Sound, there is a tremendous amount of action involving some species of small fish and all the marine life that follows and feeds on them. A few days recently saw lots of action off of East Chop in Oak Bluffs albeit the action was only visible in a spotting scope. Razorbills, fabulous little football-sized black and white replicas of penguins were darting around in the air and actively feeding under water. Black-legged kittiwakes, small pelagic gulls and northern gannets were there as well. Hundreds of gulls of a number of species, attracted by the bounty, were also partaking of the feast. It was quite a show!
Inshore, downtown in Vineyard Haven, something that would have been impossible a dozen years ago but that is now becoming routine has been going on. Turkey vultures, big, black soaring birds with bare redheads, have been cruising around all over town and roosting in trees in backyards. Frankly, they have been scaring people in the vicinity of Franklin Street just a few blocks from downtown. Don't be alarmed; just enjoy watching these remarkable flying machines that love road kill.
Groups have been seen comprised of 12 vultures, but it appears that there are two groups comprised of about anywhere from four to six birds that travel together. Just across the water in Falmouth there have been flocks of over 25 birds seen. What is apparent is that the turkey vulture has colonized this area and is now found year-round and is still increasing in numbers. So don't be alarmed when a group of "huge" black birds descends into the treetops at dusk to spend the night. It is just the assistant road crew come to help keep the roads free of dead animals looking for a place to sleep.
This past weekend the Island was attacked by good weather. Common redpolls were on the move and several flocks were reported on what turned out to be a not so Super Sunday. Flock sizes ranged from 6 to 60 birds and most were heard first and then seen as they flew by heading west.
Sonya Norton of Vineyard Haven was happy to watch two large woodpeckers, yellow-shafted flickers, working over her lawn on Groundhog Day. She reports they were happily finding many grubs and stayed hard at work getting lots of them for a little over 20 minutes. There is already the start of bird song on most mornings and while still only February. Spring is on the way!
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!
To contribute news about birding activities or sightings, call The Times Birdline, 508-693-6100, extension 33, or e-mail email@example.com.