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birds

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Perfectly timed for the Felix Neck Bird-a-thon.

Maureen Williams and her son Gregory Clark spotted this "mystery stork-like bird" on Middle Road in Chilmark the other day. – Photo by Maureen Williams

Rarities are unpredictable by their very nature, but here are two certainties about rare birds on the Vineyard: They’ll keep turning up, and when they do, word will get around.

The arrival of vagrant birds, much sought after by birders, is guaranteed by geography. For a storm-driven bird or a disoriented migrant, Martha’s Vineyard is often either the last chance to stop before crossing an ocean, or the first chance to land after a long, long flight. Lost and wandering birds, from across the continent or even across the globe, find us with amazing frequency.

The seemingly instantaneous distribution of news about rare birds is, in contrast, a purely social phenomenon. Simply put, interest in birds runs wide and deep on the Vineyard, fostered by the Island’s underlying orientation toward the natural world. And within this large birding community, information about birding hot spots, rare birds, or the identification of birds flows fast and freely.

It’s hard to estimate the number of active birders on the Vineyard. There may be a dozen or two truly hardcore birders here, veterans with solid field skills who build at least a little birding into nearly every day. But one Vineyard birding Facebook group, Martha’s Vineyard Bird Alert, has almost 800 members. And a sizable chunk of the population knows the common birds well enough, and pays enough attention, to notice when something unusual shows up. One result is that many of the Island’s best birds are found and reported by people on the outer fringes of the birding community.

A splendid example of how this all works took place last week. First of all, a well-documented report of a rare visitor came on Wednesday, May 13, from an unexpected source: Sharp spotting by 12-year-old Gregory Clark, who says he’s not really a birder, but nevertheless noticed a tall, stork-like bird in a pasture as his family drove west along Middle Road. Skeptical at first, Gregory’s mother, Maureen Williams, turned around to check out the “tall, orange bird” her son had noticed, and was able to snap some stunning frames of a sandhill crane — a once-every-few-years vagrant to the Island.

Aware that unusual birds are of interest to the local press, Ms. Williams sent photos and a brief account of the sighting to the Times, which in turn passed them on to me. I put the word out via two Vineyard birding Facebook groups, one focused on rarities and one on general birding. And meanwhile, Ms. Williams, Gregory, and Gregory’s 87-year-old grandmother Joan Williams, described by her daughter as “an encyclopedia of facts,” independently arrived at the correct ID for their mystery bird.

Several birders were able to re-find and photograph the crane. Maureen Williams observed the bird again the next day, while she was working at Squibnocket; the crane passed high overhead, giving its distinctive call. Roger Cook noted what was surely the same bird almost simultaneously, word of that confirmation making it onto Facebook. Ms. Williams, guessing accurately based on the bird’s direction, drove once again to Middle Road, where she found it in the same pasture it had originally appeared in.

Local birders would have gotten a kick out of this bird under any circumstances: Sandhill cranes are striking birds, standing about four feet tall, and they often engage in fascinating foraging or social behavior. But interest was heightened because the sighting coincided with Massachusetts Audubon’s annual Bird-a-thon, a birding and fundraising event that is one of the high points of the Vineyard birding year (massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/birds-birding/bird-a-thon).

In a birdathon, observers have a set period of time, usually 24 hours, to find and identify as many species as they can. Typically, conservation supporters pledge a certain amount of money per species, with the money going as donations to the sponsoring organization. The Massachusetts Audubon Bird-a-thon adds an element of competition through teams representing each of the organization’s sanctuaries. Island birders pull out all the stops to uphold the honor of our local sanctuary, Felix Neck.

“Bird-a-thon brings together the best aspects of birding,” says Felix Neck Sanctuary Director Suzan Bellincampi; “exploring nature, watching wildlife, and bringing together folks of all ages and interests.” Plus, Ms. Bellincampi reports, it raised about $8,000 for Felix Neck this year, while tallying almost 120 species.

About two dozen Island birders, as young as 8 years old, formally participated, while virtually every other birder at least kept eyes and ears cocked for anything unusual. Online and telephone discussion ensured solid coverage of the Island and fed good discoveries to a central species list.

With this year’s event running from 5 pm last Friday until the same time Saturday, you may be sure that information on the crane was in demand, and a contingent of up-Island Bird-a-thon participants added this bird to their list of targets for the day.

However, the fact that vagrants often turn up here doesn’t mean that they stay put, or that you can find them at will. Scott Bermudes reported seeing the crane leave the pasture on Middle Road on the afternoon of Thursday, May 14, and that was the last anyone saw of the bird until after the Bird-a-thon. Island observers, in birding parlance, “dipped” on their target (though the event generated reports of some other notable rarities).

The sandhill crane was refound along North Road late in the day on Sunday. How long it will stay is of course unknown. My guess is it is a returning migrant heading toward one of the few locations (in Maine, western Massachusetts, or Vermont) at which this species seems to be establishing a breeding presence in New England. Cranes have been slowly expanding as a breeder into the Northeast over the past couple of decades, and so this visitor may be reflective of a long-term regional trend of increasing numbers.

So there you have it: discovery, identification, dissemination of the news, tracking of a rarity — and, alas, the not-infrequent outcome of a bird that no one can find when the chips are down. To some, birding may seem like an odd or pointless activity. But to its enthusiasts, the search for birds is enlivened by the possibilities and challenges of living on an Island that acts like a catcher’s mitt for vagrants. And the process of birding is enhanced by the existence of a loose but large and welcoming community that freely exchanges information, assistance, and photographs.

In addition to the Facebook group referenced above, the birdily inclined can get updates on what’s around from a weekly column, “Bird News,” either in the print edition of the Vineyard Gazette or on its website, vineyardgazette.com. Editors at both the Gazette and the Times happily receive bird questions or reports of rarities, passing them on to freelancers or community members qualified to respond. Birders in the field are almost invariably willing to offer advice, answer questions, or share what they’re looking at. And it’s not too late to donate in support of Felix Neck at firstgiving.com/team/291682. Feel free to join the flock.

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With a long tail and short, rounded wings, male Cooper’s hawks are smaller than crows.

Juvenile Coopers Hawk — Calibas, Wikimedia Comm

Last weekend, while looking for butterflies along a fire lane in the State Forest, I was surprised by a sudden halt in the bird songs that were providing the soundtrack for my stroll. A prairie warbler, which had been reciting its ascending buzz with the regularity of a clock, missed his cue; a chipping sparrow bit off his song in mid-trill.

This sort of thing makes birders look up. So I did. And as is supposed to happen at such moments, I found myself trading stares with a smallish hawk passing almost over my head. A long tail, and short, rounded wings marked this as a Cooper’s hawk; its modest size, clearly smaller than a crow, marked it as a male. Gripped in its feet, pulled snuggly against its belly like a football in a fullback’s hands, the hawk carried a small, gray item – probably a meadow vole, hardy unprecedented but not quite a typical prey item for a Cooper’s, since this woodland hawk specializes in catching birds.

The hawk, making good time on firm, steady wingbeats and clearly aiming for a nearby stand of evergreens, did not appear happy to see me. It instantly veered off course and rapidly climbed. In a few seconds, it was in full soar, wings out straight and tail fully fanned, perhaps 200 feet above me. It circled a couple times, then banked steeply and dove toward a point on the other side of the evergreens it had originally been flying to. I lost sight of it, and in a few minutes, the birds were singing again.

It was not hard to figure out what was going on, and indeed, this kind of thing happens quite often these days. A hawk making a bee-line with prey in its talons in early June is on its way back to a nest, on the way home from doing some shopping for its mate and offspring. The sudden change of direction by the hawk I observed was aimed at concealing the location of the nest. The steep climb and circling simply reflected the bird taking a good look around, making sure I was alone and that no other threats were in the area. And the sudden plunge was probably the start of a more discreet approach to the nest, through the back door. I was probably standing within 100 yards of so of an active Cooper’s hawk nest.

The relationship between humans and Cooper’s hawks has not been a happy one. The hawks, being optimized for bird-hunting, have a hard time passing up chickens. And farmers, not wanting to lose chickens, for many years responded by shooting the hawks. Sport gunning for these “undesirable” birds of prey also took a heavy toll. While never really close to extinction, in the early 20th century the Cooper’s hawk was largely erased as a breeding bird in well-settled areas in our region.

Legal protection, a regional decline in farming, and a better appreciation of wildlife has resulted in fewer Cooper’s hawks being shot, and the species has steadily rebounded in numbers over the past few decades. Long a staple of the fall hawk migration on the Vineyard, Cooper’s hawks began (or, more precisely, resumed) breeding on the Vineyard about 20 years ago. It’s hard to tell how many pairs nest here, because these birds travel widely in search of prey, and they do their best to be discreet when they have eggs or young. But based on how often and how widely I see this species during the breeding season, I’d put our current nesting population somewhere around 20 pairs, and I’m convinced the number is growing slowly but steadily.

While known to nest in a wide range of settings, Cooper’s hawks are said to have a special fondness for nesting in white pines, and on the Vineyard at least, I think they almost always nest in evergreens of some kind. Concealment is surely the reason. While adult Cooper’s hawks have little to fear from other predators, the relationship between crows and Cooper’s hawks is one of mutual detestation. Crows simply can’t see one of these hawks without harassing it; they’d eat the hawk’s eggs or nestlings if they got the chance, and by mobbing adult hawks whenever they see one, crows spoil the hunting and delay the return of adult hawks to the nest.

Cooper’s hawks remain a common fall migrant on the Vineyard, their numbers peaking in early October, with some birds lingering on the Island through most winters. The species is much less obvious, and probably less numerous, during spring migration. One puzzle is whether our nesting population migrates south, or, as with our red-tailed hawks, reflects a distinctive, sedentary population of a generally migratory bird.

In any case, the Cooper’s hawk appears well established as a breeding bird here, and the eerie silence as songbirds catch sight of an approaching Cooper’s hawk will be a common event for alert Vineyard naturalists for years to come. Don’t forget to look up.

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A snowy owl photographed near State Beach in Oak Bluffs. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Some days, you just get lucky. After several days of searching all the likely snowy owl spots, without sighting a single bird, this owl turned up 10 feet off Beach Road, between big bridge and little bridge.

snowy owl-3The owl was having a tough day. First a woman with an iPhone jumped out of her car and scared him off. He landed in the dunes across Beach Road, near State Beach. Then four crows began to harass him, dive bombing and creating a cackling racket.

snowy owlHe flew off once again, and landed in some tall grass, where he found some peace, until this photographer crept a little too close. He lifted off, banked, and flew right in front of me.

Here are the specifics for photographers.

Camera: Nikon D7000

Lens: Nikkor 70-300 zoom

ISO: 200

Shutter speed: 1/800 second

Aperture: f/5.6

Some days, you just get lucky.