There have been three very interesting sightings this past week. One is of snowy owls that were seen and photographed in two locations. Two others are difficult as they are either extremely rare and no photo was taken, or the photo taken was not the best so the final identification is still in question. I am beginning to feel uncomfortable being the person who demands proof positive, but if we are to continue to have a Vineyard Birds book, we feel the information has to be reliable to ensure the book is accurate.
Not one, but two, snowy owls were seen on Nov. 29 by Warren Woessner, Pete Gilmore and yours truly. I got the word out to other Vineyard birders and by the time we were driving off the beach, Jeff Bernier and Ken Magnuson were heading out with their camera gear. Both Pete and I had our “idiot” cameras and took many shots, but they don’t hold a candle to the photos taken with SLR digital cameras! Thanks to Jeff and Ken there are fine photos of the pair of snowy owls at Norton Point.
There are many theories as to why there is an eruption of snowy owls. These elegant white owls are residents of the tundra where they feed primarily on lemmings, voles and mice. Some say when the lemming population crashes, the owls head south to find food. Others say when there is a good year for lemmings the owls have more offspring, which causes the adults to chase the young of the year away from the habitat in which they were raised. The adults want no competition for their food — sort of like locking the kitchen door.
Nancy Jephcote and Paul Thurlow spotted what they believed was a white-tailed kite in the Quansoo area on Nov. 30. Unfortunately, Nancy and Paul didn’t have a camera and the word didn’t get out immediately, so no photos were taken. There is only one record for this species in Massachusetts and that was on the Vineyard in May of 1910! The closest sightings of this kite seen around that time were in east central Florida near Palm Beach on Nov. 17 and north western Wisconsin in the Leola State Wildlife Area on Nov. 2, where a photograph was taken. As I have said before, even a cell phone photo is better than nothing. However, now having said that, a photo of a sparrow taken at Felix Neck on Nov. 30 was in a shady spot and when lightened up, made the image difficult, if not impossible, to identify. Vineyard birders have suggested Lincoln’s sparrow, swamp sparrow and chipping sparrow as possibilities. We will probably never know the exact identification of either of these two fascinating observations.
On Dec. 3, Sharon Pearson spotted and took a cell phone photograph of a snowy owl on the breakwater of the Big Bridge on Sylvia State Beach in Oak Bluffs. Hard to tell whether it is a third snowy owl or one that has moved from Norton Point.
Ken Magnuson photographed an immature snow goose in with Canada geese at the Farm Institute on Dec. 2.
On Dec. 1, Warren Woessner spotted two ruddy ducks at Crackatuxet Cove, and a sharp-shinned hawk, snow goose and American golden plover at the Farm Institute. The same day Rob Culbert spotted two eastern meadowlarks at the Farm Institute, and Constance Alexander heard a great horned owl near Lake Tashmoo — a nice change from the screech owls she frequently hears.
Nancy Weaver and Margaret Curtin walked out and found both the snowy owls at Norton Point on Nov. 30. The same day Jeff Bernier observed a mixed group of about 12 greater scaup and ruddy ducks at Squibnocket Pond and at Slough Cove six green-winged teal. At the Lagoon, Jeff counted 12 American widgeon, then four red-breasted mergansers at Menemsha and finally, at Cranberry Acres, 16 ring-necked ducks.
Pete Gilmore, Warren Woessner and I not only spotted the two snowy owls, but also a lesser black-backed gull on Norton Point on Nov. 29. Pat Hughes and I watched northern gannets fishing close to shore off Quansoo later that same day. The same day Ken Magnuson photographed two Cooper’s hawks at the Edgartown Golf Club, one juvenile and one adult. Roger Cook had a barn owl fly over him at Quitsa Lane the same day.
On Nov. 28, Tim Johnson sent a nice photo of part of the flock of brant that spend the winter at Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs. The extended Whiting family flushed a barn owl out of the Quenames barn during our Thanksgiving walk.
Bob Woodruff watched with amazement as close to 500 crows flew over his North Tisbury home coming in from the north and headed southwest on Nov. 27. It was blowing a gale and a few birds settled into the pines in neighbors’ yards. Bob remembered that flocks of crows migrate from the mainland to the Vineyard daily and used to pass by his house in the past. The storm must have sent the crows off on a different tack than what is now their migratory route.
On Nov. 24, Sioux Eagle was photographing birds in her West Tisbury yard, including a Carolina wren and a mixed flock of American robins and cedar waxwings vying for space in her bird bath.
Penny Uhlendorf and Scott Stephens have had a fox sparrow at their Pilot Hill feeders since Nov. 23. They also have seen several red-winged blackbirds.
At our Quenames bird feeder, Flip Harrington and I had a visit from a female purple finch on Nov. 22, and at our bird bath on Nov. 21, I spotted a hermit thrush and American robin sharing a splash.
On Nov. 21, Rob Culbert noticed that an American oystercatcher was still on Sarson’s Island and two horned larks were in the dunes on State Beach. The next day Rob Culbert counted 30 vultures near the Tisbury School. On careful examination Rob decided that at least three of the 30 were black vultures, the remaining were turkey vultures. Black vultures are rare on the Vineyard, although they are seen in very small numbers annually. Rob also watch white-throated sparrows feeding in the fields across from the school. Twenty American robins were feasting on the fruits of the trees in the school yard.
Nov. 19 found both Ken Magnuson and Jeff Bernier down the right fork at Katama photographing horned larks in the parking lot just before the beach.
On Nov. 25, Cookie Gazette Perry found that the horned larks were still in the same location. Obviously there is good weed seed available for the harvesting.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913. If the phone doesn’t answer, please email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan B. Whiting is the co-author of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her website is vineyardbirds2.com.