“Raining robins” was how West Tisbury’s Pat Szucs described the scene in her yard last Sunday morning. A good-sized flock of these popular thrushes turned up there, socializing actively as they fed on juniper berries. Pat noted that robins have been scarce or absent in her yard for many weeks now, and her astute observation illustrates how one tells arriving migrant birds from individuals that have wintered here: The migrants simply behave differently, showing up in different places and displaying a much higher level of energy. Over-wintering birds are in survival mode, intent on staying sheltered and conserving energy; migrants are intent on moving, take more chances, and act a bit randy. I noted a similar flock of robins in Oak Bluffs the same day.
Indeed, the warm weather and robust southerly winds (the temperature on our porch in Oak Bluffs hit 63 on Sunday) brought in a strong pulse of several early migrants. Predictably, red-winged blackbirds and common grackles dominated the mix, and again, these arrivals, singing competitively with their buddies, clearly advertised their migratory condition. Once the vanguard of these species has arrived, there is no turning back: Regardless of what nasty weather we may have, their numbers will steadily build in coming weeks. Northern flickers also increased in number or, at least, became more evident: During a morning of birding on Sunday, I found more than a dozen of these colorful woodpeckers, including a couple that were calling.
And yet the wonderful thing about March is that even as northbound migrants arrive, winter birds are still very much in evidence. Several observers, including Dan Waters in West Tisbury and Irene Tewksbury near Chicama Vineyard, continue to note common redpolls at their feeders (and this elegant finch is also being widely reported on the mainland). Wintering sea ducks and razorbills were plentiful off the Gay Head Cliffs on Sunday. Purple sandpipers continue to peck industriously at the jetties in Oak Bluffs. And a hermit thrush (surely a wintering bird, since arriving migrants of this species are almost two months in the future) skulked under a rhododendron at the Tisbury Waterworks Tuesday morning.
Regular readers will recall that at least two short-eared owls visited the Vineyard earlier in the winter, with reports spanning from Katama in the east to Black Point Pond in the west. When reports stopped coming, it was not clear if the birds had departed or if people had simply stopped looking for them. But last Friday a sad bit of news suggested it may have been the latter. While mowing fire breaks for a planned prescribed burn at Katama, the Nature Conservancy’s land steward, Liz Loucks, found the remains (or at least a wing and some body feathers) of a short-eared owl.
The feathers were still in fresh condition, suggesting the bird had died recently. There was no indication whether the owl had been killed by a predator or succumbed to some other cause and then been scavenged. Also, there is no way to know whether the bird had been one of the individuals reported earlier, though this seems likely. Liz also reported a live short-eared owl in the same area, near the southern end of the Katama air field.
Judy Hathaway is lucky enough to live on the Boulevard in Edgartown, the road that fringes the southern end of Sengekontacket Pond in Ocean Heights. Though not often worked by birders, the area is one of my favorites for a quick check of the pond or the area’s thickets, and I’m happy to hear that Judy is keeping an eye on things. In particular, she has been watching the numbers of wigeon wax and wane, and among the American wigeons, she picked out a drake Eurasian wigeon earlier this week, identifying this uncommon bird by the red-and-buff head coloration that is its most distinct field mark.
A truly bizarre report came from Fred Bellows, who spotted what he later identified as a blackpoll warbler on the tarmac outside the terminal at the Dukes County Airport. I’m skeptical of the identification: This strongly migratory species vacates North America quite thoroughly for the winter and does not start its journey northward from its South American wintering grounds until late March at the earliest. And it is rarely seen on the ground. However, having spoken with Fred, I’m also convinced that he saw something out of the ordinary, perhaps some more likely species with aberrant pigmentation that made it resemble this species of warbler. Keep an eye out if you’re at the airport; this is a mystery I would love to see solved.
Indeed, keep an eye out, period, and an ear cocked, as well. This is an interesting season, with every day potentially bringing new arrivals and new additions to the chorus of songs.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.