Fortunately, we do not often get a chance to talk about how birds are affected by a major snowstorm. But 15 inches of heavy wet snow has provided that opportunity.
Birds can detect the air pressure changes that accompany an approaching storm, giving them time to prepare for adversity. Their response may be to avoid the storm by migrating to another location, away from the storm. In the winter this often means heading further south. Or they may eat a lot of food before the storm arrives, so they can wait out the storm in some protected spot, say, on a branch on the downwind side of a tree trunk. As they relax and even sleep, their toes are securely wrapped around and locked onto the branch, keeping them firmly in place until they decide to move on. If the branch is broken out of the tree, they may even fall to the ground, their toes still locked to the branch.
After the storm they need to find food, which can be difficult when there is 15 inches of heavy icy snow covering the ground and their food. This is when we can see birds foraging along the edge of plowed roads, as this becomes one of the few places where they can access their normal food. Or they may shift to berries and seeds that are still attached to trees and shrubs, protruding above the snow. Or they may shift to the suet and seeds we provide in our bird feeders, which is why it is so critical to keep filling bird feeders during this wintery weather. An empty feeder may reduce a bird’s chances of surviving the storm.
There are too many reports of large numbers of birds coming to feeders during and after the storm, so I am not mentioning names, but please keep the reports coming in! From across the Island there have been hermit thrushes, brown thrashers, eastern towhees, field sparrows, tree sparrows, chipping sparrows, fox sparrows, savannah sparrows, robins, pine warblers, eastern bluebirds (a colorful addition to any feeder), pine siskins, white-winged crossbills, red crossbills and common redpolls.
On Feb. 9, a most unexpected visitor appeared at Astrea Young’s window on Lambert’s Cove Road in West Tisbury — a very wet and ruffled hummingbird. Yes, a hummingbird. In February! It hovered there for a moment, apparently trying to get to the blooming orchid that was inside, and then was not seen again. Was this one of the hummers that disappeared last month, or another one? We will need it to show up again to be able to determine which species it is (was?). Please keep searching for any hummers in this unusual Hummer Winter!
And now on to things more expected! Spring has sprung! Well, sort of. “Kong–aa-reeee” they sang, and Anne Lemenager reports the first true sign of the coming spring. She found male red-winged blackbirds singing at Farm Pond on the morning of Feb. 12, and Joseph Jims called to report these same birds, as he found two males there on Feb. 13. Penny Uhlendorf also reports some singing in her Vineyard Haven yard.
“What a welcome sound,” she says.
While we have had red-wings all winter, they are silent in flocks in the woods rather than individual males singing and flashing their red epaulets in their breeding marshes. These blackbirds always return in February, and the females will follow in a few weeks.
Michael Ditchfield found the short-eared owl at Katama on Feb. 12, as it flew up from the beach grass along the south shore of Crackatuxet Cove. This is likely the same individual that I found on Feb. 7, when it was further inland near the eastern end of Herring Creek Farm.
Also on Feb. 12 and also at Katama, Ken Magnuson found and photographed snow buntings, and Jeff Bernier found 18 horned larks and a pair of snow buntings. Mr. Magnuson also reports that the Baltimore oriole near Sheriff’s Meadow in Edgartown has survived the snows so far, as he found and photographed it on Feb. 11. Trudy Carter reports a male oriole at her suet feeder in downtown Edgartown, which is probably the same bird.
It seems that we are all birding Katama this week. I can add nine common mergansers at the eastern end of Crackatuxet Cove before the storm, on Feb. 7. I also counted 30 black-bellied plovers, 250 sanderlings and 70 dunlin on Norton Point. It was a very low tide and it was obvious that a lot of sand has washed over Norton Point into Mattakesset Bay, making that shallow bay even shallower than it was before.
Gus Ben David called to report that he successfully released the injured red-tailed hawk that he captured and reported last week.
Tom Rivers called to report an unusual behavior. He observed black-capped chickadees taking a bath in the snow.
And there are two reports of oddly colored individuals. Sally Williams reported an uncommon variant of white-throated sparrow at her Oak Bluffs feeder on Feb. 4, with an entirely tan stripe above its eye. White-throats normally have a white stripe above the eye, perhaps with a bit of yellow right next to the eye. And Janet Alley of Old County Road in West Tisbury reports a somewhat unusual western form of the hermit thrush at her feeder — it has a paler than normal back.
Remember that this weekend, Feb. 15 to 18, is the Great Backyard Bird Count, another opportunity for you to contribute to our understanding of winter bird populations. Watch in your yard or anywhere and record how many individuals of each species you find, and turn in your data at birdsource.org/gbbc/ and (of course) to us.
Be sure to report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard bird hotline at 508-645-2913 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Culbert leads guided birding tours and is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.