Wow, call it an invasion, an irruption or a superflight, the Vineyard has had it! The definition of a bird invasion is a periodic southward influx into the United States from Canada and Alaska from those who normally live there year-round. This movement tends to happen when there has been an increase in these bird populations. From Chappaquiddick to Aquinnah, huge flocks of pine siskins have been seen.
It is fascinating to watch the pine siskins feed and to check out the amount of yellow in their plumage. The females have no yellow in their tails or wings as is the case probably for the immatures. The males are quite yellow of wings and tails and, in some extreme cases, on their backs as well. The pine siskins have sharp pointed bills so can be confused with warblers. However, the siskins’ notched tails and extremely pointed bills and flocking behavior help us separate them from the warblers.
There were very few sightings of any of these species on the Island last winter. Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists makes an annual winter finch forecast, and this year he said “Both coniferous and hardwood tree seed crops are generally poor from northeastern Ontario extending eastward across Quebec to Newfoundland south through the Maritime Provinces, New York and New England states.... Thus, Pine Siskins in the Northeast could move south this fall and winter due to poor cone crops. They may show up in numbers at bird feeders.”
Eleanor Hubbard of West Tisbury spotted a yellow-bellied sapsucker in her yard near the state forest on Oct. 9. Many people, including Tim and Laurissa Rich up on the Chilmark/Aquinnah line, Larry Hepler of Quansoo and Sue Silva of Indian Hill Road, West Tisbury, have reported pine siskins and red-breasted nuthatches during the week of Oct. 8. Phil and Elizabeth Stacker of West Tisbury noted that it was the first time they had red-breasted nuthatches at their feeder, a statement that many a caller or emailer to the bird hotline also related. Larry Hepler added that on the flats near the opening of Tisbury Great Pond on Oct. 1, he spotted two piping plover and ruddy turnstones.
Bob Shriber spotted a red-headed woodpecker and black-billed cuckoo in Aquinnah on Oct. 10.
On Oct. 11 Sterling and Jean Weaver joined me on a birding excursion. At the Gay Head cliffs we met up with Bob Shriber. We had a good morning with our best birds being a sharp-shinned hawk, a yellow-billed cuckoo, a yellow-bellied sapsucker, a brown creeper, palm and blackpoll warblers, a female rose-breasted grosbeak, and field, clay-colored, song, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows and dark-eyed juncos and flocks of pine siskins! At Beetlebung Farm we found a blue grosbeak. Bob Shriber went on to the brickyard on the North Shore and found an orange-crowned warbler.
On Oct. 12 Lanny McDowell drove Simon Perkins, Flip Harrington and me out to Norton Point. We counted 13 American oystercatchers, a late staying common tern and four black skimmers.
Saturday, Oct. 13, was the Big Sit, a day that was started by Bird Watcher’s Digest where you choose a spot to sit the whole day and record what you have seen in a circle about 17 feet wide. Joshua Rose came from Connecticut to do a Big Sit on the Vineyard. He asked me, Matt Pelikan and Lanny McDowell where to bird and we all said the Gay Head Cliffs at Aquinnah. Joshua sat for 13 hours and spotted 63 species. Highlights included a brant, a red-breasted merganser, a great cormorant, a black-billed cuckoo, seven species of hawks, tree swallows, purple finches, large numbers of red-breasted nuthatches and pine siskins, and an American pipit and ruby and golden-crowned kinglets. Joshua’s best bird was a cliff swallow which has only been seen a couple of times on the Island.
In other parts of Aquinnah on Oct. 13, Allan Keith, Bob Shriber, Lanny McDowell and yours truly found a yellow-bellied sapsucker and a hairy woodpecker. At the Gay Head Moraine we added a brown creeper, a blue-headed vireo, blackpoll and black and white warblers and a scarlet tanager.
Nancy Abbott called on Oct. 13 to say that she and Brian have been watching an American kestrel that has taken up a perch near their bird feeders. The black-capped chickadees continue to tend the feeders, but other species seem more cautious. Kestrels tend to be insectivores, but not always.
Happy and Stephen Spongberg walked the beaches of Cedar Tree Neck on Oct. 13 and spotted three ruddy turnstones. Luanne Johnson has a brown creeper in her Vineyard Haven yard and she has put a tray below her feeder to keep the spilled seeds off the ground. She does this as a method of preventing skunks and rats from coming around for the spilled seed. A great idea!
In the center of the Island on the same day, Rob Culbert spotted a red-headed woodpecker at the state forest. Further down-Island, Jeff Bernier photographed a lovely late-staying Northern parula warbler.
Allan Keith ventured to Norton Point on Oct. 14 and found the four black skimmers and American oystercatchers were still there, but also found both salt marsh and Nelson’s sparrows and a seaside sparrow. On Oct. 15 Lanny McDowell added a merlin, 14 killdeer and a possible flock of American pipits at the Farm Institute.
Lanny McDowell photographed a great horned owl in the Tashmoo area on Oct. 14 and Penny Uhlendorf commented that this is the seventh year these large owls had nested in the area!
Rob Bierregaard sent out maps of the young osprey from New Hampshire that got the award for the last osprey to leave this area and start its migration. This bird is way out of sync, however, as his route is heading straight across the Atlantic toward Portugal! We are trying to figure out what is going on. The theory is that he is on-board a ship of some sort. Stay tuned.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Susan B. Whiting is the co-author of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her Web site is vineyardbirds2.com.