Now that the annual Christmas Bird Count is fading into pleasant memories and a lot of fascinating data, we might be lulled into thinking that we can put citizen science aside until next winter. Nope! Such is not the case, as we have a request for help with a winter waterfowl survey of sites where people feed wild ducks and geese.
This statewide survey was started 35 years ago and is repeated every five years, so 2008 is the year. The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) counts the ducks and geese that are attracted to sites where people feed them. It does not matter where the birds are being fed: at bird feeders, in parks or on ponds. Nor does it matter how many people are feeding them.
Mallards are the most abundant species at many of these sites, and this supplemental food may help them survive the winter. A variety of other species may be attracted to these sites, including American black ducks, wood ducks, northern pintails, gadwalls, American wigeon, hooded mergansers, and yes, Canada geese. The messes these species (especially the last) make is one of the reasons why some municipalities restrict or prohibit such feeding. I do not know of any such restrictions on the Vineyard.
MassWildlife is asking the public to report sites where waterfowl are being fed. Please report the town, specific location, date and number of ducks and geese seen, preferable by species. The survey period is from Jan. 7 to 25. Results may be reported by letter to H. Heusmann, MassWildlife, One Rabbit Hill Road, Westboro MA 01568, by phone at 508-389-6321, by fax at 508-389-7890 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before we get into this week’s sightings, I will report that the official number of species observed on the Vineyard’s Christmas Bird Count on Jan. 5 is 130. This ties the all-time high of 130 species recorded in 2003. It is amazing what birds you can find when you have good weather. The official tally of how many of each species were observed will appear in a future edition of the Gazette.
This week’s bird sightings section focuses on four species that were not observed on the count.
On Jan. 12, Dot Packer was out canoeing along the eastern shoreline of Lake Tashmoo and was able to get within 100 feet of a male blue-winged teal. It was with a flock of bufflehead but they flew off as her canoe approached, providing a great opportunity to study the solitary teal. And Mrs. Packer had her binoculars with her this time (usually she does not take them) since she was out looking for the common loon that has been frequenting Lake Tashmoo.
This is an exceptional sighting because the blue-winged teal are not usually present at this time of the year. We did not find any of them on the bird count despite having more than 100 observers out scouting the Island for birds.
Tom Rivers observed a rough-legged hawk in Blacksmith Valley on Christmas Day. This is a species that used to be more common on the Vineyard in the winter. They were observed on most counts from 1960 to 1989, but have been seen on only two counts since then, in 1993 and 1994.
Two other species that were missed on the count were Iceland gull and glaucous gull. Both species were observed recently. Warren Woessner was out birding Menemsha on New Year’s Day and spotted a pale immature Iceland gull. And on Jan. 14 I observed the glaucous gull that has been hanging around for so many winters at Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs.
Two observers called the bird line to report seeing a short-eared owl at Katama. Jane Varkonda found it on the morning of Dec. 31 and Warren Woessner observed it that afternoon. Probably the same bird was observed by Vern Laux’s crew on the Jan. 5 bird count. This is another species that is fairly unusual now but was much more common before 1980.
Marion Hammond reports that things are fairly quiet at Felix Neck, but multiple observers have been pretty excited to see eastern bluebirds out in the fields. And on Jan. 9 I observed one fox sparrow hanging out in the evergreens immediately adjacent to the parking lot.
Albert Fischer reports two sightings of a northern shrike, on Jan. 12 and again on Jan. 15, in the dunes adjacent to Squibnocket Pond in Aquinnah.
These are the highlights of messages left on the bird hot line. Thanks for all the calls, and please be sure to keep calling in your observations at 508-627-4922. That is how this column can keep everyone up to date on what birds are around.
Robert Culbert is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.