Bird song increases as March arrives
Relentlessly, inexorably, whether we care to notice or not, time thankfully keeps on rolling into the future. The only constant thing in life and the natural world is change and evidence of change is all around us. Creatures living in the natural world are finely tuned to the planet's annual rhythm as it describes its elliptical course around the sun.
Spring, the reawakening of life after a winter's dormancy, has arrived on the Vineyard and it seems perhaps a little earlier than usual. The volume and intensity of bird song as well as the number of species that are singing at first light, in fine weather, is growing on a daily basis.
Not only is there an increase in song but bird behavior is changing as well. Birds that were keeping close company with each other a couple of weeks ago are now intolerant of each other, refusing to share a bird feeder. Each is responding to a changing endocrine system that is pumping hormones into their bodies and preparing them for the upcoming breeding season.
This requires a big change in behavior from winter mode. Foremost is the need to establish and defend a territory. Hence the increase in aggression and the growing intolerance with others of its own kind. Red-winged blackbirds, northern cardinals, mourning doves, American robins, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, song sparrows, and eastern bluebirds can all be heard singing most mornings and again near dusk. They are already defending territories and courting. Some will begin nest building in the near future.
On the shore and beach there is a veritable maelstrom of activity. Great black-backed and herring gulls are displaying to each other and pairing off. Out on the elbow of Cape Pogue, the gulls are already standing around defending territories in the beach grass. They are brilliant at this season as their beaks and orbital (eye) rings get brighter, a fiery bright orange, yellow that screams, "look at me."
Currently, sharing the beach with the gulls, out near Cape Pogue is at least one snowy owl that has been in the area since November. Impressive birds by anyone's standards, these large and powerful birds feed primarily on rodents and rabbits while visiting Island shores. However, they are opportunistic and will take whatever prey they surprise or have a chance of capturing.
Any day now, more of those wild and wacky and extremely colorful denizens of sand bars and mud flats, American oystercatchers, will be returning from more southerly wintering climes. A very early individual was seen by Matt Pelikan a couple of weeks ago and more will be back soon, arriving on southwest winds. These unmistakable birds are about the size of, but look nothing like, pigeons.
Oystercatchers are shockingly attractive birds and a favorite with younger people. When well seen at close range it is hard to forget the way their heads look. They have a black head, a long orange beak that is laterally flattened like a knife and a distinctive black and white plumage. Their eye has a black pupil, yellow iris and a bright orange orbital ring (bare skin surrounding the eye) that matches the color of their beak. They are gregarious, noisy and well-liked by humans sharing the beach with them.
Contrast oystercatchers to the small, non-descript sand-colored threatened piping plover that lives right on the outer beach and lays its eggs on the open exposed sand. These tiny summer residents begin to arrive back for the summer much earlier than human visitors. Generally by the end of this month, many have returned back to establish territories on very cold, uninviting looking stretches of beach.
When the young plovers hatch - in April, May or early June - beaches are often closed to 4-wheel drive vehicles, for as long as a month or more. This does not endear these tiny plovers to local fishermen and summer beach enthusiasts. The young, camouflaged perfectly, are for all intents and purposes invisible. They get out of the wind by finding the lowest spot on the beach, which unfortunately is 4-wheel drive vehicle tracks. For a few weeks before the young can fly, they are especially vulnerable too many things including getting flattened by vehicles driving on the beach.
American woodcock are beginning to display in favored fields on warm evenings, and spring is busting out all over in the bird world. Red-tailed hawks are engaging in flight displays, uttering their piercing screams, nest building and mating. Rare is the sunny day when these birds are not seen soaring about anywhere one happens to be on the Island.
The waters surrounding the Island are alive with migrant birds and dawn will find flocks of migrating scoters and eiders as well as lines of loons moving north and east by Island shores. It is an excellent time of year to begin looking at birds, whether you ever have before or not. Check it out, you will get to explore this lovely Island and learn something of the feathered inhabitants as well.
Lastly, Claire Harrington of West Tisbury reports from 10 to 15 tufted titmice coming to her feeders. They have been cheering and entertaining her as she recovers from the flu, which has been making the rounds. If you have to be feeling poorly at home titmice are just the thing to cheer one up.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!