Birds : Christmas Bird Count
The Martha's Vineyard Christmas Bird Count was run Saturday, Jan. 3, with fairly good weather, but lots of wind and snow cover made it tough to find birds. Observer effort is just not the same when conditions are brutal. With rescheduling of some counts due to nasty weather, punishing temperatures, and winds encountered during this past count season, many observers who participate on multiple counts are happy to be done with these until December 14 of this year. A well-earned 50-week respite is coming.
The Martha's Vineyard count was well attended despite the wind chills. The entire Island was covered and 119 different species of birds were recorded. The more unusual species recorded included several rough-legged hawks, a northern shrike in West Tisbury, five yellow-breasted chats up-Island, nine American pipits, and a vesper sparrow in Edgartown. The stiff breeze hindered the ability of birders to find owls before dawn as well as birds on the ocean or in thickets. Nonetheless, a good time was had by the approximately 60 birders that ventured afield for the day. Nothing completely unexpected was discovered, but many interesting birds were seen.
Over the years and decades, evolving trends become even more apparent. For example, 10 years ago on the Martha's Vineyard count, there were no tufted titmice, few red-bellied woodpeckers, and Cooper's hawks and turkey vultures were very hard to come by. On the count just conducted, all of these birds were widespread and seen by many groups. Time brings changes in bird populations. The data collected from now long-established Christmas Bird Counts are fantastic at revealing these trends.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
Titmice are familiar to most readers. These tiny, woodland-loving birds loathe flying over water. They had only sporadically made the daring four-mile open water flight, crossing from Cape Cod to the north shore of Martha's Vineyard in the prior decade. They were a major rarity and eagerly sought whenever one showed up at a feeder by Island birders. This year's count had titmice recorded from almost all wooded areas. This species has now colonized Martha's Vineyard and is becoming a familiar and welcome part of its avifauna.
For the past few years during the fall migration, titmice have been encountered flying around and over the Gay Head Cliffs at the west end of Martha's Vineyard. This is a sure indication that the species is engaging in some migratory movement, which is something not known to occur in this species. The Grey Lady, Nantucket Island, much further put to sea than Martha's Vineyard, is looking for its first titmouse. This writer thinks it will happen in the next decade; time will tell.
One of the more spectacular highlights of the Martha's Vineyard count was two snowy owls that were seen in the Katama section of Edgartown at dusk. One bird was found sitting along Katama Bay, opposite the boat ramp, in beach grass at the edge of the tidal flats. This individual was seen repeatedly taking flight and hovering at varying altitudes, like a giant moth, hanging in the stiff wind, listening, and looking for a potential meal.
Then as dusk descended, the group covering this area was out in Katama's vast fields by The FARM Institute, scanning for short-eared or barn owls that often hunt these fields at twilight. An owl was seen coming in high from the west. As it approached, dropping over the fields and landing in the middle its identity was apparent. It was a snowy owl.
After a short while, the owl flew up and hovered some 100 feet above the ground for almost a minute. Then it turned and flew with surprising speed right towards the observers. It kept coming and stooped like a giant white falcon at some mallards that had just flown into the darkened field, narrowly missing making a meal of one.
It sat in the field again quite close in the settling darkness. After sitting for a minute, it flew up again, hovering some 200 feet in the air. It hung, flapping its wings, a sight as magnificent as any ever seen for over a minute before turning and stooping at some Canada geese that saw it coming just in the nick of time to avoid the hungry owl. Even a so-so bird count provides lasting memories.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky.