Birds : March arrives
This month has roared in like a lion, albeit, surely a lion on its last legs. This week has been one of the nastiest and coldest of the entire winter. Despite the cold temperatures and biting winds, sunshine still provided lots of solar power, especially in areas sheltered from the wind chill. It put a damper on bird song and interactions as they did not have time to do anything but eat and survive the brutal late-winter conditions.
However, by the time this gets to press, conditions are forecast to have moderated substantially and be more seasonal. The excitement that builds in March, waiting for the arrivals of not only the first returning Osprey - quite likely to occur in 9 or 10 days - but also killdeer, tree swallows, and many more blackbirds. A large increase in bird song accompanied by displays of courtship behavior in resident birds make it clear that spring has slowly started. Never arriving fast enough, it takes its own sweet time, but it happens.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
Spring courtship displays
The dance, both terrestrial and aerial, of the American woodcock is performed at dawn and dusk on calm evenings from now through late May or early June. This performance can be heard and seen in all Island towns. Naturally, some places are better than others. The best places have an open field surrounded by woodland with little disturbance. However, the birds get so fired up in the spring and many are northbound migrants just practicing before traveling to their breeding area, that they will be doing their thing on ball fields and many other sub-prime locations for the next few weeks.
Resident red-tailed hawks have been conspicuous, engaging in courtship flights and calling over large areas of Island airspace. These large hawks are rarely flashy, but for the next few weeks they perform, act, and fly like there is no tomorrow. Love-crazed display flights, where the birds climb out of sight into the sky before folding up and screeching almost to earth before zooming back up, impress not only prospective mates but also fortunate human observers.
Resident northern harriers have also been observed in courtship flights. These great looking birds are typically hard to see and when seen, views are brief. When courting they throw, literally throw, caution to the wind. Forget about saving energy, the northern harrier is a bird of open fields, dunes and beach, marshes and open areas with short vegetation. They specialize in capturing rodents and are superbly adapted for this task.
This species is highly dimorphic meaning there is a great difference between the males and the females. Females average more than a third heavier and have longer wings, tails, and bodies. They are a streaked and mottled uniform brown color. The male is smaller and when adult is a striking gray color on the upper side including head, mantle, and tail feathers and pure white below with jet-black wingtips. Both sexes show off a large white rump area at the base of the tail on the upper side.
The male harrier goes skyward after exchanging verbal communication in the form of a couple of short screeches with the female. Under her watchful eye he climbs and begins a series of flip-flop maneuvers. He literally flip-flops in the air, turning upside-down in a flight maneuver resembling a maniacal flying rag doll. It is an unforgettable sight and one that a determined observer can witness over the next six weeks on the Vineyard.