Birds : Thanksgiving birding
This most American of holidays shows just how important birds are in our lives. What would the traditional Thanksgiving feast be without the turkey? Just another meal - a "turkey" of a meal, if you will. Martha's Vineyard currently has an abundance of "wild" turkeys that are very much in evidence, especially down-Island.
In fact, it is hard to miss the roving flocks of these very large birds as they stop traffic on the Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road or cruise on foot into various neighborhoods, not to the delight of the residents. Martha's Vineyard turkeys act like a type of avian gang and are fierce in defense of their turf. The birds are most adaptable and thriving, enjoying their status as "wild" birds.
Martha's Vineyard turkeys are different from the wild turkeys encountered elsewhere in North America. In Texas, Kansas, ranging south into Mexico, and even in western Massachusetts, they are hard to find and very wary. Remember, turkeys are game birds; they are hunted throughout the species' entire range. Where they are hunted, the birds quickly figure out that most humans are trouble, and they become wary. The survivors, over many generations, turn into wily ghosts. This is why turkey hunters find it a challenge and a thrill to try to get close enough to bag one of these impressive birds.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
Enough about turkeys. Hopefully the reader will enjoy a pleasant holiday and have a chance to get out of doors and visit one or more favorite Island locations. Despite the brutal winter weather this past week, the Vineyard is still a fantastic place to be on this holiday. The birding possibilities are many and varied, but most of the action is not inland but on the waters surrounding the Vineyard.
The water's surface is full of life at this season. Both common and red-throated loons are abundant right now. The red-throated loons are numerous close to shore along the south side and at Wasque on Chappaquiddick. There are smaller numbers of horned grebes and a handful of red-necked grebes.
Tens of thousands of large sea ducks in the form of eiders and scoters are feeding in several locations around Martha's Vineyard. The impressive flocks make it appear as though the observer might actually be able to walk on water, so densely packed are the birds on the water's surface. Where the birds are densely concentrated, "jam-packed" so to speak, it indicates a premiere feeding location in the form on an underwater blue mussel bed or exposed shoal. Often, after a November storm, shifting currents and sands expose shellfish beds that may have been much harder to get at before the storm exposed a bounty for these hardy sea ducks.
Thinking of ducks and shellfish reminds me that a young man asked me last week how the birds eat the clams. Good question. Ducks don't have teeth, they have a beak that is light and strong. They can't chew the shells and, unlike herring gulls they don't fly up over a road or parking lot (or rocky beach) and drop them to break them. What do they do?
The answer is they dive underwater, pull and twist at the bed of mussels until they tear some from the bunch, and quickly try to swallow them whole. They then head back to the surface. Often if they have not managed to swallow them before they get to the surface, waiting gulls will attempt to steal (kleptoparasitize) the food from them.
Unlike a human stomach, the birds have a two-stage digestive system that is comprised of two very different stomachs. The mussels go down the gullet into the gizzard - the upper stomach if you will. It is a hard, muscular organ, full of sand and small rocks. Think of it as a bird disposal, a grinding organ that quickly pulverizes the hard clam or crab shells. Then this pulverized slurry proceeds to the lower stomach - the proventriculus - where the nutrients are absorbed by the birds. The rest is quickly excreted, as excess weight is something birds avoid. Birds' digestive systems make a human's look slow and totally inefficient.
Martha's Vineyard is great for birding, and this holiday week is traditionally an excellent time to find both common and rare birds. Happy Thanksgiving.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky.