One of my favorite sights of the fall is about to occur. I have not yet heard reports of snow buntings, but they will be here soon. These buffy brown, white and black birds will be observed on the beaches as they walk and run around beach grass plants. Woe be to any small bug that accidentally makes itself visible to these birds! They also will land on a stalk of beach grass to eat the seeds, their weight bending the grass-blade almost all the way to the ground in the process.
Should they take to the air, their large white wing patch contrasts with the black wing tips and brownish buffy backs. They are not shy and it is often possible to get quite close to them. They are seldom quiet as they move along the beach but I cannot do verbal justice to the notes they make — a soft husky rattle or a clear descending whistle or a short nasal buzz. It is a treat to hear these calls as a flock flies nearby or overhead.
Susan Whiting’s and Barbara Pesch’s book Vineyard Birds II reports that this common fall transient may be found on their southward migration as early as Oct. 10 (in 1980). They will arrive on these shores any time now and will be fairly common for quite a while. They are irregular winter residents that may stay into February, and as spring northbound migrants their latest sighting is on April 19 (in 1992).
While we are still looking for the first reports of snow buntings this fall, other migrants and winter residents are arriving. On Oct. 16 I observed three northern gannets flying close to shore near the Tisbury Great Pond. Susan Whiting and Allan Keith observed 20 of these graceful seabirds off Chappaquiddick on Oct. 17.
Our winter resident ducks are beginning to show up too; on Oct. 17 Allan Keith and Susan Whiting found one male bufflehead in Katama Bay, and an unidentified scaup species in Poucha Pond — probably a greater scaup but it is not always possible to distinguish between greater and lesser scaup. And the winter sea duck show has begun, with these same two observers reporting 45 red-breasted mergansers in the waters near Chappaquiddick and 250,000 sea ducks in Muskeget Channel. Allan Keith reporting 50,000 of them off Squibnocket Point on Oct. 18.
Through the winter there will be large numbers of these sea ducks — including common eiders, long-tailed ducks, and all three species of scoters — at these and many other locations around the Island.
Wendy Culbert observed a Wilson’s snipe at Black Point Pond on the afternoon of Oct. 16 and Tara Whiting also saw one there on Oct. 18 and 19.
On Oct. 17 Allan Keith and Susan Whiting went to Cape Pogue, Wasque and the Farm Institute. The highlights of their trip included red-throated loons (two), a black-crowned night-heron, a snow goose (a juvenile in a flock of Canada geese), green-winged teal, American oystercatchers (three), a white-rumped sandpiper, black-bellied plovers (140), dunlin, red knots (two), ruddy turnstone, sharp-shinned hawk, peregrine falcon, laughing gulls (200), eastern phoebe, horned larks, American pipits (25), blue-headed vireo, yellow-rumped and black-throated green warblers, and bobolink. At Crackatuxet Cove they also found four ruddy ducks, six gadwalls and 10 American widgeons. An impressive list — the Chappaquiddick beaches and Katama are fantastic places to find a lot of birds.
Also on Oct. 17, Lanny McDowell had a pectoral sandpiper mixed in with the semipalmated plovers at Norton Point Beach.
Other places on the Island have also produced some good birds. Suzan Bellincampi reports flocks of the always popular eastern bluebirds at Felix Neck and I have seen them flying through the woods both at my house and on my guided birding tour at the high school on Oct. 18. That same tour also produced one American coot in with the mallard, a black duck and American widgeon at the pumping station in Oak Bluffs.
Osprey have also been hanging around Tisbury Great Pond recently. I observed four of them on Oct. 16, with two of them catching fish, and Sue Silva, Eleanor Neubert and Susan Whiting each observed three at different times on Oct. 20.
Eleanor Neubert also reports that the 16 turkey vultures that roosted on her fence line all summer have dwindled in numbers now.
Jack Desanctis called to report a close encounter with a turkey vulture on Oct. 18. He and four others were driving up South Road in Chilmark when they came around a corner and observed a turkey vulture on the road eating carrion. It flew up into the trees and perched about 30 feet into the woods where they could observe its bald red head.
On Oct. 18 Allan Keith, Susan Whiting and Bob Shriber spotted a blue-headed vireo, northern parula. orange–crowned warbler, many yellow-rumped warblers, Lincoln’s sparrow, and white-crowned sparrow in Aquinnah. Lanny McDowell and Susan Whiting found orange-crowned warblers and Lincoln’s sparrow still present on Oct. 21, as well as a clay-colored sparrow, lots of ruby-crowned kinglets and 19 eastern bluebirds.
Dale Carter observed a large dark Cooper’s hawk on Chappaquiddick on Oct. 21. The bird was being harassed first by crows, and when they retired from that activity a flock of finches took over and continued to chase the hawk. Harassing Cooper’s hawks seems to be the order of the day, as my birding tour on Oct. 18 turned up two Cooper’s that were alternately being harassed by two crows or were returning the favor and harassing the two crows. Their maneuvering produced a fantastic flight display by both species.
Call in your bird sightings to the bird hotline at 508-627-4922.
Robert Culbert is an ecological consultant and bird tour leader who lives in Vineyard Haven.