Birds : A flurry of feathers
Birds, particularly big, plucked, juicy roasted turkeys, are very much in the news today. Happy Thanksgiving to all. Aside from eating prodigious quantities of cooked bird, a noble and traditional annual planned bout of overeating that occurs on this day, there are a great variety of living (not roasted) birds about the Island. Going out in pursuit of some of these more active species enables one to burn off some of the delicious food and obtain a bit of exercise.
The Vineyard is a wonderful place to enjoy Thanksgiving and a large influx of people here for the holiday. With the increased number of people and all the gorgeous places to visit, whether a favorite beach or on an inland Land Bank property, some interesting and unusual birds are often seen by a small army of observers. While out getting some air, exercise, or away from the cluster of family momentarily, take along a pair of binoculars. They make a world of difference when out looking for birds.
This most American of holidays shows just how important birds are and historically have been in our history. What would the traditional Thanksgiving feast be without the turkey - just another meal? The Island currently has an abundance of "wild" turkeys that are very noticeable, 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, often to the chagrin of the residents. The Island turkeys act like a type of avian gang and are fierce in defense of their turf. They are exceptionally adaptable and they thrive here, enjoying their status as "wild" birds.
The Vineyard turkeys are different than wild turkeys encountered elsewhere in North America. In Texas, Kansas, and all over the United States, 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 their 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.
Enough about the Vineyard's semi-domesticated 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. The Vineyard is a fantastic place to be for 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. Both common and red-throated loons are abundant right now. The red-throated are particularly numerous right now close to shore along the entire south side of the Island and at Wasque on Chappaquiddick. There have been small numbers of horned grebes and a handful of red-necked grebes seen over the past 10 days.
Tens of thousands of large sea ducks - both eiders and scoters - are feeding in several locations around the Island. The impressive flocks look like the observer might actually be able to walk on water, so densely packed are the birds on the water's surface. Where they are jammed together, tightly packed, it indicates a premiere feeding location in the form of 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, exposing a bounty for these hardy sea ducks.
Thinking of ducks and shellfish for a moment, a young man asked me last week how the birds eat the clams. Good question. Birds don't have teeth, so they can't crack and chew the shellfish. Instead 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, parking lot, or rocky beach, and drop them. What do they do?
The answer: they dive underwater, pull and twist at the bed of mussels until they tear some off, 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 the birds food from them (kleptoparasitize).
They then swallow them whole. Unlike a human stomach, the birds basically have a two-part digestive system that is comprised of two very different stomachs. The mussels go down the gullet into the gizzard or crop - the upper stomach. It is a hard, muscular organ, full of sand and rocks. Think of it as a disposal, a grinding organ that quickly pulverizes the hard clam or crab shells.
After grinding the shells and nutrients in this muscular organ, this pulverized slurry proceeds to the lower stomach - the proventriculus - where the nutrients are absorbed by the birds. The rest is quickly excreted because excess weight is something birds avoid. Birds' digestive systems make a human's look slow and totally inefficient.
The Vineyard is great for birding and this holiday week traditionally is an excellent time to find both common and rare birds.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky.