Birds : Blackbirds are back!
The amount of daylight - or more technically, the photoperiod - is rapidly increasing. Birds' endocrine systems respond to this and begin to produce hormones that kick in to prepare for the quickly approaching breeding season. So while we keep the wood stoves stoked and the furnaces cranked up, huddling to stay warm, resident birds are already proclaiming their stakes to nesting territories.
The first land bird to return north in spring is invariably the red-winged blackbird. These hardy and extremely successful and adaptable birds nest in virtually every swamp, grassland, and mixed successional habitat in the northern United States and southern Canada. Generally migrants of this species return to the Vineyard on or around the 20th of February.
Recently arrived red-winged blackbirds are finding bird feeders. With the ground once again snow-covered, making food scarce, the "visiting" blackbirds follow other birds to where they are finding food, at feeders. Over-wintering and resident birds are feeding voraciously at whatever they can find, especially feeders that are snow-free and well stocked.
While spring is definitely in the air, however, it is definitely not here yet. If you are feeding birds, don't stop now, they need the calories more than ever at this point in the season.
Aside from all the usual suspects that have been coming all winter, keep on the lookout for new arrivals. Roaming flocks of blackbirds, comprised primarily of red-winged blackbirds but with common grackles and brown-headed cowbirds often associated with them, may show up at any time during the day.
This past week red-wings appeared at feeders where they had not been all winter. Most of these early arriving migrants are continuing farther north to breed. While visiting the Vineyard they are interested in feeding constantly, attempting to gain and store energy for the final push to more northerly breeding grounds.
Of course with small numbers of these birds spending the winter it is hard, if not impossible, to know if a few birds are new arrivals or over winterers changing their behavior patterns and daily schedules. However, when flocks of red-wings, virtually all males, arrive, it becomes clear that these are migrants.
The male birds move north a couple of weeks earlier than females. They want to be first to stake their claim, by singing loud and often, to the best breeding habitats. The danger of being first on the breeding grounds is that there may be no food and nasty weather upon arrival, and to be successful as breeders they must first simply survive.
As the red-wings currently visiting the Vineyard in late February are finding, moving north in late winter is fraught with hazards like snowstorms, northeasters, and bitter cold. When and if the weather improves and southwest winds prevail, there will be many more of these birds arriving with many remaining to breed.
The days are quickly getting longer. This is always a welcome development and the natural world is tuned in to a level we can barely conceive of. Calm evenings now spur American woodcock, bizarre robin-sized, woodland living shorebirds that make a living by eating earthworms at night with their ridiculously long bill as a probe, to engage in display flights. These nocturnal birds, while rarely seen, are surprisingly common from now until late April on the Vineyard.
The easiest way to find them is to proceed to a field in the State Forest or to an open area of the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank property, or any other likely spot at just before dusk or before dawn. Just as it starts to get dark, the birds begin their display calling and flights. It is best on clear nights with little wind, but as the season progresses the birds display almost all the time regardless of weather. I prefer to check them out doing their thing early in the season before the ticks become really active. Ticks are sluggish when it's cold.
The display calls and flights of these birds are truly wondrous. If you have not heard and seen this display, do not miss the opportunity to do so over the next couple of months. The male makes a loud call that can be heard a half mile away in calm conditions. It is a loud "PEENT, kind of a nasal, rough sound that once heard and comprehended is unmistakable. The birds keep this up for a short while then get airborne climbing into a high slow spiral with noise being created and generated by stiff flight feathers.
They then drop back to earth as if they had been shot, with a loud high pitched twittering sound being created by their flight feathers. They then resume calling and repeat the entire display. They will keep at this for an hour or so before heading out to feed. They repeat the show as it begins to get light again in the morning.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky!