Misidentification of a bird species is always embarrassing, but when it is one made on a group of birds very difficult to separate, it is not quite as bad.
Recently Barbara Pesch, Sue Silva, Nancy Weaver and I were birding at Waskosim’s Rock. The birding at this time of year can be challenging as the leaves are on the trees, making finding the birds harder. Most birds that are on the Vineyard at this time are nesting and are more secretive. On the other hand, the birds are more vocal and therefore birding by ear is the best way to identify birds in the woods.
Now that is all well and good if you are 20 years old and your hearing is good and you are familiar with the calls. My hearing is shot, and Sue and Nancy are new to the calls of the Empidonax flycatcher, so Barbara was our ears. However, even if my hearing was good and Barbara was familiar with the calls, to distinguish the calls between the Acadian and willow flycatchers is tough.
The Empidonax are a group of flycatchers that are extremely similar. They all are a dull green with two-toned bills, wing bars and varying amounts of eye rings. Even the best birders claim the only way to differentiate between these troublesome flycatchers is by the voice. Now because I am audio-challenged, I purchased software from National Geographic which has the bird songs and calls of 867 North American Bird species. I use this tool to play the songs of what I think we are hearing to the people birding with me so they can compare it with what they are hearing.
We were along the brook at Waskosim’s, close to the open field, when we heard the bird. At the same time we heard a pair of hairy woodpeckers making quite a racket. They were obviously very upset with us because we were close to their nest. I played the recording of the willow and alder flycatcher and the women decided that what they were hearing was the willow flycatcher. Listening to both birds now it is hard to tell the difference. I neglected to play the Acadian flycatcher song. Sue Silva noted that the Acadian flycatcher’s call, according to the Peterson’s Field Guide, has the accent on the second syllable and the willow on the first syllable. Sue felt the accent was on the first syllable and Sue, Barbara and Nancy felt the bird was saying “fitz bew,” not “weeb ew.”
Now to confuse things even more, Lanny McDowell, Sally Anderson and Allan Keith had what they identified as Acadian flycatchers in the same area. Could there be both willow and Acadian flycatchers in that area? The willows are supposed to be in brushy habitats in wet areas and the Acadians in woodlands and swamps, according to National Geographic Field Guides to Birds of North America. The area where we all saw or heard this Empidonax flycatcher was along a brook in the woods, close to an open field. Did we make a misidentification or not? I know that both Empidonax flycatcher species have been heard at Waskosim’s but Acadians have been known to nest there. Your call.
Allan Keith has been busy in the field. On May 23 at Squibnocket he spotted an olive-sided flycatcher. The next day at the Gay Head Moraine Preserve he had a lonesome and somewhat late white-throated sparrow. Also, it’s unusual to find this sparrow in the woods. On May 26 and June 2, there were still red knots and 25 ruddy turnstones at Norton’s Point. On May 26, Allan spotted his first sharp-tailed salt marsh sparrow on Chappaquiddick and also a late-staying whimbrel.
And speaking of late-staying, Allan had a female hooded merganser at his pond at Turtle Brook Farm on May 26 and 27. These birds will eventually breed on the Island, no doubt. On June 2, Allan had both black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos calling at Waskosim’s Rock and the Oak Bluffs pumping station. Allan heard and spotted the Acadian flycatcher at Waskosim’s Rock on June 2 and also saw a female Blackpoll warbler and green heron at Squibnocket and a late-staying female ruddy duck at the pumping station. Allan also noted that there are two pair of eastern phoebes with young already at Waskosim’s Rock. Finally the two black crowned night herons were still skulking around the pumping station as June 2 and a willow flycatcher was heard singing by Allan at Squibnocket the same day.
Pat Hughes joined Barbara Pesch and me on May 25. We went to Great Rock Bite and had a nice variety of warblers, including blue-winged, black and white, yellow, ovenbird and common yellowthroat. We were stunned at the number of American redstarts. We also heard several great crested flycatchers.
Eric Peters and Ron and Hazel Greenwood have all noticed turkey vultures this last week. Eric spotted several at Red Gate Field at Pohogonot feeding on a skunk carcass and the Greenwoods watched a kettle of several turkey vultures circling over their Chilmark home on May 29.
Warren Woessner did a noble job of birding during the windy day of May 31. At Sarson’s Island, he found a laughing gull in with the least terns, a piping plover, willets and a sanderling (which was in full breeding plumage.) At Katama, Warren spotted a snowy egret, at Little Beach a green heron and finally at Menemsha he had roseate terns in with the common terns. The next day Warren spotted a short-billed dowitcher on Beach Road by Sengekontacket Pond.
Rich Stanton also spotted the short-billed dowitcher but also found a salt-marsh sharp-tailed sparrow in the marsh along the Sengekontacket side of Beach Road. Rich has also reported hearing prairie warblers calling at Quansoo, Long Point, Dogfish Bar in Aquinnah, Chilmark Pond and Chip Chop.
Emily Reddington reports that the piping plovers have started hatching and running around the beaches. Enjoy these little critters and be careful to avoid them.
Tim and Sheila Baird spotted their first ruddy turnstones of the season on Sengekontacket Pond on June 2. On June 4, they spotted a horned lark on the state beach and a chimney swift in Oak Bluffs. Tim noted that each year in the late spring he notices a group of single swans at Eel Pond that are not nesting. Tim figures this is a bachelor group that is made up of males that were unsuccessful in finding a mate. Better luck next year, boys.
Gus Ben David mentioned that free range chickens are vulnerable to predation by red-tailed hawks at this time of year. It might be prudent to have a movable fence.
Bert Fischer shared the company of a cock ring-necked pheasant for much of this spring. The pheasant hung out with Bert’s chickens and Bert was worried that the pheasant would not find a mate. Luckily the pheasant did and she is now nesting near Bert’s house. The male is still around and has been sharing the chicken feed with Bert’s flock as well as using the chickens’ favorite dust bath location. I wonder if this ring-necked pheasant’s offspring will be part chicken.