Don’t look now but those large gray and white geese out in a field near you may not all be Canada geese. It is worth checking through those flocks carefully just now. The reason is that several unusual but similar species have appeared in our region recently that are most likely to be found mixed in with the Canadas. A greater white-fronted goose has been seen on Nantucket within the last week. This western and Midwestern species has been found here five times, the last record in 1995. More surprising, a pink-footed goose which nests from eastern Greenland eastward into Europe, was seen on the Cape a few days ago, apparently the first Massachusetts occurrence of the wild bird. To top that off, a flock of 24 cackling geese was seen at Salt Pond in Falmouth within the week, in easy sight of West Chop. This species looks like a miniature Canada goose, not much larger than a mallard, also from the west. The most recent issue of North American Birds, published by the American Birding Association, has a fine article on how to distinguish the three races of cackling goose: Ridgways, Aleutian and Richardson’s. We know of only two records for this species here, in 1958 and 1987. I’ll settle for any of the three forms. And while on the subject of possible vagrant goose species, it should be remembered that barnacle goose, another wanderer from Greenland and Europe, turned up in both Rhode Island last winter and other years in Massachusetts. While we seldom see geese arriving here from the Cape, the recent spate of very cold weather may be just the kind of conditions that would prompt their doing so.
While on the subject of waterfowl, this season is a good time to go looking for them. Since almost all fresh water ponds are now frozen solid, many fresh water ducks have been forced out into salt water. A recent survey found a few ruddy ducks in Menemsha Pond, American wigeons and black ducks in Katama Bay; lots of greater scaup and two handsome drake redheads were off the boat ramp at Eel Pond in Edgartown, and more scaup, hooded mergansers and lots of buffleheads were in Oak Bluffs harbor. In the few patches of open water at the Head of the Lagoon, a few American wigeons, several handsome ring-necked ducks, a pair of wood ducks, some coots and a pied-billed grebe are hanging out. At least six snow geese are with Canadas at the Farm Institute and the flock of Brant in Oak Bluffs has built up to 77, the highest number in recent years.
The number of mute swans on the Island has dropped since the Christmas count two weeks ago, and several people have asked where they might have gone. A few are on salt water, but many may have simply left for points south. At 35 to 40 miles per hour, it only takes a morning for a strong-flying swan to reach the Connecticut coast, Long Island or even the New Jersey shore.
The severe cold seems to have forced lots of wintering songbirds out of thickets and into people’s feeders. Ozzie Fischer in Chilmark has seen an influx of white-throated sparrows and northern cardinals. He has also had occasional visits from a pine warbler, a male rufous-sided towhee and a Baltimore oriole. Another towhee is at Felix Neck and two males are at my feeder. On North Road Joan Jenkinson has a gray catbird eating peanut butter, a purple finch and a towhee. In Edgartown on Tuesday Robin Bray had a brown creeper at her home.
Pine Siskins have appeared widely. Laurie Walker found some at Abel’s Hill, Gus Ben David had a flock at his home, some visited Emmett Carroll on Middle Road, and Ozzie Fischer has seen a few. Lanny McDowell has siskins regularly in West Tisbury, and a single common redpoll has appeared there sporadically from Jan. 15 at least through Jan. 20. Another irregular winter finch is the flock of white-winged crossbills found by Luanne Johnson in North Tisbury on Jan. 6 and for several days following.
Eastern bluebirds are scattered all over the Island. Reports have come in from the Squibnocket area, Chappaquiddick, Seven Gates Farm, Katama, Middle Road in Chilmark and Felix Neck. The same is true of American robins feeding on winterberries, crab apples, juniper berries, etc. — anywhere they are available. Occasionally cedar waxwings are mixed in the robin flocks; Andrew Fisher reported four pairs in West Tisbury on Inauguration Day.
A few herons are wintering. Great blue herons are still being found at Felix Neck, in West Tisbury by Judy Jahries, at Slough Cove in Edgartown, and Herring Creek at Katama. A juvenile black-crowned night heron was at Felix Neck Jan. 16.
Raptors are still around as well. Northern harriers have been seen at Squibnocket and Katama, a peregrine falcon is hanging out at the Gay Head Cliffs, and merlins are at Squibnocket and the Farm Institute fields at Katama. A snowy owl was at East Beach on Jan. 9 and one was seen at Long Point by Whit and Diana Manter last Saturday. The next day they found two juvenile bald eagles dining on a goose carcass near Long Point, and Judy Klumick probably saw the same two eagles cleaning up another dead goose at Morning Glory Farm Tuesday.
From Shirley Miller comes another report of a leucistic black-capped chickadee at her home on Chappaquiddick.
Last but not least, in the last week an adult ivory gull was found at Gloucester which was still there Monday. Since then another was found at Plymouth on Tuesday. Getting closer. This species has never been verified on the Vineyard. Keep on the lookout for this handsome bird and get the news out if it appears.
Allan Keith is a resident naturalist living in Chilmark and co-author of Island Life, a Catalogue of the Biodiversity on and around Martha’s Vineyard, widely available in Island bookstores.