Birds : Not the usual suspects
With the big election finally in the rearview mirror, my thoughts turn from human candidates to rare and unusual bird species. There are a lot of potential bird candidates from Siberia, the west and southwestern U.S., Mexico and even Central and South America that might appear on Martha's Vineyard at this season. The operative word here being "might," it is historically the time of year for something completely unexpected to occur - a mega-rarity along the lines of a red-footed falcon.
Not the usual suspects but vagrant birds, birds that have done some serious flying. These individuals manage to get thousands of miles from where their usual range. The longer and stronger the west winds blow, the greater the likelihood that vagrant land birds, strays from afar, will appear. While not occurring every year, the search for and preparedness to encounter such extreme rarities will allow the observer to keep an open mind and not readily assume that the bird one is looking at fits neatly into the pigeonhole one attempts to jam it into.
Chance does indeed favor the prepared observer. The reason this is mentioned is so Island birders and column readers realize what a great spot the entire Vineyard is for birding, especially at this season. This writer has little doubt that there are several gray flycatchers, a few western hummingbirds, and several other vagrant species flitting about undetected on Martha's Vineyard right now.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
The problem is that it is a big island, there are not many observers, birders can't go birding as much as they would like, and most birds pass by unseen. It boggles the mind to think about what birds actually pass through undetected. I would hazard a guess that 99.9 percent of migrant birds pass over, by, and around Martha's Vineyard undetected. This is very exciting to think about and provides all the more incentive to get into the field to see what has not yet been seen. Every day in the field there is opportunity to learn new things, and best of all is just being out in the natural world to begin with.
The action in and on the waters surrounding Martha's Vineyard continues to increase and the number and variety of bird life is impressive. Both red-throated and common loons are here in considerable numbers with impressive flights of both species occurring at first light at Wasque on Chappaquiddick. Horned and pied-billed grebes are arriving and passing through as well. Northern gannets, large, prehistoric looking birds that resemble dinosaur-like flying javelins have been noticed at many spots, particularly after or during easterly winds.
But the biggest spectacle continues to be the vast numbers of sea ducks, flooding into area waters in huge numbers. These massive flocks of common eiders and all three species of scoters are a special feature of birding on Martha's Vineyard at this season. No location is better for getting fabulous looks at lots of these birds than the Vineyard in November.
The landscape and birds are quickly transitioning to a winter-like scene. This makes it easier to detect any late-season vagrants that may be moving by attempting to head south and west without foliage in the way. That is not a bad thing as Martha's Vineyard provides the best winter birding in New England for both land and water birds.
Lastly, typically the birding this week of the year is really good, aided by November weather, which encompasses virtually anything imaginable.
Finally, during this week in 2003, Massachusetts' long overdue first occurrence of cave swallows was reported from Orleans on the outer Cape on the 15th. Regrettably, the first reports for this species were not from the Vineyard, though not for lack of observer effort. Ferociously strong and prolonged west winds prevailed for days and "pinned" many birds along the immediate coastline including the aforementioned enigmatic swallows.
In the past week reports of cave swallows from coastal Connecticut have come in and perhaps a few of these small strong flying swallows will put in an appearance on Vineyard shores. Snowy owls have also been reported from areas to the north and west and it can be reasonably expected that one or more of these spectacular birds will be found on Martha's Vineyard during upcoming days.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky.