A bird of a different feather

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

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.