With day length increasing and the sun's rays providing some much-needed warmth, winter's back has been broken. Spring is less than two weeks away! As always at this time of year, with spring nipping at winter's heels, it is a time of hurrying up and waiting.
March is a funny time on the Vineyard in the natural world. Birds have clearly begun to migrate, but the season takes its time. It is a case of three steps forward, two steps back, but at least things are heading steadily in the right direction.
March, all Island residents would agree, is surely not the best month to be on the Vineyard. After the snow, freezing, thawing, refreezing cycles and prodigious rain, dirt roads often become rutted tracks resembling something from a road rally nightmare. Four-wheel drive is nice but even this is small consolation for some of the "tank traps" that wait for the unsuspecting on long nasty back roads. Mud season has arrived, this year already becoming exceptionally nasty.
Mornings have recently become much more cheerful. As the light comes up, increasingly earlier every day, "the hills are alive with the Sound of Music" as bird song rapidly gains in volume and intensity. Male birds are singing, louder and longer, with each passing day. Cardinals, black-capped chickadees, song sparrows, mourning doves, etc. are all tuning up. Bird song changes the sound and "feel" of the natural world.
While the weather is still cold and nasty, the ambient bird noise lets us know that a change for the better is under way. Birds that spent the winter here and survived seem to be celebrating their success by proclaiming their existence to all. Bird song will continue to increase from now right through the end of June.
A big advantage for these non-migratory individuals is that they are already where they're going and so can concentrate on snagging the best breeding territories. This is the reward for the price they paid, running the gauntlet of winter's severe weather, lack of food, and hungry predators. They don't have to expend further energy by flying back to the breeding grounds. They are here already.
The land, plants and animals alike, is starting to awaken from its winter dormancy. For those of us interested in birds, things get much more interesting starting now, after a very hard February. At dusk, the courtship display of the American woodcock, a bizarre and unique shorebird that inhabits fields and woodlands, is a prominent feature as long as the wind is not howling.
Screech owls - small, tufted birds that are common from Aquinnah to Chappaquiddick - can be heard calling with their bouncing ball whinny, reminding this writer of a distant horse call. These little feathered dynamos are the bane of woodland rodents and do an admirable job keeping these species' explosive populations in check. The only problem going out to hear them is listening for them over the din created by those ubiquitous little tree-frogs, a.k.a. the spring peepers. It is a nice problem to have.
Waters and wind turbines
Vast congregations of all three scoter species and common eiders followed by lesser numbers of many other sea ducks make the waters surrounding the Island a birder's paradise. The flocks of ducks are so big that counting them is very problematic. Estimates of some flocks off of Wasque on Chappaquiddick have exceeded 100,000 birds.
In reality, this count is surely missing to the downside. As the birds gather in dense rafts over favored feeding areas, it appears as if the sea and sky are a seething mass of bird life. This can cover large sections of ocean and no matter how they are surveyed, numbers are all guesstimates with a substantial margin for error.
Getting accurate, reliable counts is difficult at best, whether attempting to census from boat or aircraft. What is known is that the largest concentrations of these birds in the western North Atlantic occur here. It is a critical and important area for the survival of many species with unheard of concentrations of sea ducks congregating to avail themselves of abundant food and clean waters undisturbed by man's activities.
Unfortunately, finding out what and how many birds are out there matters. The proposed construction on an industrial park over some 26 square miles of Nantucket Sound continues to march along. To say that this will impact area bird life is a whopping understatement. The effects will clearly not improve this area for birds.
The unknown is how it will impact the birds. Despite the various "studies" of hypothetically building this and predicting the outcomes, the studies are literally not worth the paper they are written on. No one knows what real, imagined or unimagined problems will actually occur. The only way to know would be to build one, two, or three of these massive towers and watch and monitor what actually happens. What has been signed off on from the many agencies is no help for the vast numbers of birds using this area.
Will these turbines literally "kill" the birds by actual collisions? Or will it displace migrants and over-wintering flocks from feeding and roosting areas? The questions and risks are endless. Finding out what happens by building this massive and experimental project is clearly not worth the risk, in this birder's eye.
Lastly, if you see what you think is an osprey on a pole get a pair of binoculars and make sure. Turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, both great black-backed and herring gulls and many other birds like to sit on the poles at this season. If it is an osprey, by all means call it in as soon as you can.
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.