The month of February, while not anyone's favorite as it is generally cold and nasty, is a month characterized as good to put behind us. It's the month that "breaks the back of winter" so to speak, as the orbit of the earth around the sun proceeds on its annual journey. It is a time of great change in the natural world, the real world, for all living organisms.
David Dandridge of Vineyard Haven was looking out at the Lagoon at 2:30 pm on Feb. 12 when he noticed all the gulls got in the air and were fleeing the area. Suspecting the presence of an eagle he got his binoculars and spotted an immature bald eagle soaring about over the water and partial ice cover. Eagles will eat any gull they can catch and often check out large flocks looking for a gull that might be injured or unable to escape. Gulls really don't like eagles in the area.
At any rate the bird did a big survey of the area, soaring on wings held perfectly flat, and temporarily clearing the area of gulls. Waterfowl in general are not real happy with eagles in the area and vacate a location as fast as possible. The eagle did a nice job of emptying the Lagoon of bird life and was not seen to find a meal.
The photoperiod, also known as the length of day, is steadily increasing, as that big heater in the sky has been turned up in the northern hemisphere. There is a growing amount of sunlight from now until June 21 and life at this latitude is intimately keyed into it.
Hard to miss is a new sound in the air. Birds have begun to sing again. Every morning, when the wind is not howling, you'll hear resident species tuning up, announcing their respective presence. It is a reminder, a precursor of warmer days ahead.
Birds are also beginning to look different, as they grow new feathers in a process called molting. Many birds grow new body feathers twice a year. They replace flight feathers, those on the wing and tail, just once annually.
This past weekend, molt was detected on many individual birds. Herring gulls, known to most of us as common sea gull, are losing the gray feathers on their heads and necks becoming clean white for the upcoming breeding season. Upon close inspection, most individuals will show a slightly mottled appearance over the next couple of weeks and then all the adults will be a bright, crisp white on the head and neck.
A small sandpiper that spends the winter on Vineyard tidal flats called the dunlin has a dimorphic plumage, both males and females. In winter it is a nondescript gray bird. In summer breeding plumage it is a snazzy looking, red-backed, black-bellied beauty full of rich colors. Some individuals are already beginning to show a "shadow" of a black-belly. Although in this instance the black of these feathers is obtained by feather wear, not molt.
Many birds change into a breeding plumage. Some acquire this plumage by molting, others by feather wear. Most people are familiar with the European starling, a prolific bird on Martha's Vineyard and most of the rest of the continent. They change their look from winter to summer primarily by feather wear. Check them out periodically and take note of whether the individual feathers have white tips or not.
There is lots of action out on the waters around the Island. Dawn at any coastal promontory or favorite beach will provide glimpses of many species moving around. The waterfowl are already pairing off and will be departing northward on warm days for the next month. Loons and grebes are molting into breeding plumage and are in between plumages making them rather funny looking. Matt Pelikan discovered a very early American oystercatcher along Beach Road in Oak Bluffs on Feb. 10.
Eastern bluebirds continue to excite and amaze people. There is nothing to compare to the sight of a flock of these shockingly colored "friendly" birds. They feed on berries (red cedar, a.k.a. juniper berries, a favorite) and allow fairly close approach at this season. Observers, both new and old, never cease to have their breath taken away by the sight. One does not tire of looking at bluebirds. The blue is so incredible that no matter if it is your first view or hundredth, it elicits a response from any observer. The visually inspiring bluebirds impress all fortunate enough to view them. Roving flocks of these birds have been turning up Island-wide.
Migration has already begun as a hardy few species have begun to return north from more southerly wintering areas. Red-winged blackbirds, a species noted for its early return in spring, have been appearing weeks earlier than normal at Island feeders. In fact, the first suspected migrants arrived the first few days of February. This is most unusual and so very early that any kind of prolonged winter storm would most likely have been fatal to these eager returnees.
Lastly, the increase in bird song and activity becomes more pronounced each week. This past weekend on Feb. 16, American woodcock were heard in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs as they were performing their courtship display flights, preparing for the rapidly approaching breeding season.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!
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