The Vineyard bird hot line received a fascinating report from Edo Potter, out on Chappy, who noticed a rowdy mob of crows outside her house around dawn last Friday.
The crows were ganging up on something they had pinned to the ground — just what wasn’t clear, but it was large and, when Edo’s husband Bob flushed the crows, it flew off to some nearby bushes.
Edo speculates the mugging victim was a great horned owl, and as uncommon as this species is on the Island, I think she’s probably right. Great horned owls have occurred, and probably nested, on Chappy in recent years, and if there is one thing a crow hates, it’s these big owls. Very likely a flock of crows, perhaps dispersing from their nocturnal roost on Chappy, found an owl heading home late from the office; they jumped it and might well have injured or killed it had Bob not intervened.
House-sitting in Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs resident Diane Morgan keeps the feeders full and prudently keeps her bird guide right by the window. The former attracted, and the latter helped her identify, a red-bellied woodpecker, a species that is inordinately fond of sunflower seeds and is probably the woodpecker most likely to visit a feeder. The Spongbergs, on Bija Lane in Chilmark, have also had a red-bellied woodpecker making fairly regular visits.
Another woodpecker to keep an eye out for is the strikingly marked northern flicker. More strongly migratory than our other woodpeckers, flickers have nevertheless been rather common this winter; two turned up on Sonya Morton’s lawn in Vineyard Haven, evidently probing for grubs in the sod. This may seem like most un-woodpeckerly behavior, but ground-feeding is a typical foraging strategy for flickers. Mildly surprising was a report of a hairy woodpecker at Felix Neck. This woodpecker prefers unbroken tracts of woodland and is more often encountered in mature, up-Island forests.
Happy Spongberg stays alert for birds on her frequent drives down Tea Lane in Chilmark, and that’s a good thing: the habitat along Tea Lane, wet and brushy, is enormously productive. Last Friday, Happy noted a hermit thrush, a species that overwinters dependably, albeit in modest numbers, on the Vineyard. They almost always turn up in wet thickets, so Tea Lane is a fine place to look for them. Happy also reports that she has both chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches eating out of her hand. And with evident relief, she notes that their pugnacious turkey flock has shrunk from 10 to a more manageable three individuals.
Visiting Cedar Tree Neck in West Tisbury on Sunday, Alan and Joy Ganapol were able to photograph a great cormorant. On Sunday, a tufted titmouse was heard singing outside along State Road adjacent to the fairgrounds.
Blackbirds, the earliest of our migrant songbirds, continue to filter in. A red-wing has been visiting the feeders at Felix Neck, and Tom Chase noted a flock of common grackles in Oak Bluffs last Saturday. These birds represent the optimistic and perhaps foolish vanguard of their species, but their colleagues are not far behind; from here on in, each pulse of warm weather will bring increased numbers of red-wings, grackles, and cowbirds. Indeed, searching for early migrants represents the most interesting birding challenge at this season. Puddle ducks (including wood ducks) and early shorebirds like yellowlegs and killdeer are among the possibilities to keep in mind — species that are wintering not far to the south of us.
Tuesday’s weather — on the warm side, with a southerly wind and a frontal system bearing down from the north — seemed to me to offer some birding potential. My thinking was that early migrants, inspired by the warm air flow but encountering a wall of bad weather, might put down on the Island. I birded down-Island and found little to justify my optimism. But I’m glad I went out: you can never guarantee unusual birds, but the best way to find unusual things is by getting out into the field when conditions increase the chances of vagrants or early arrivals, in places where there are resources to attract them.
A plowed field at Katama Farm hosted 20 black-bellied plovers and 80 dunlin. A female northern harrier hunted industriously over the airfield at Katama. The Bamford Preserve — the east field at Herring Creek Farm — had a small flock of eastern meadowlarks. A fine-looking cock pheasant was poking along a hedgerow along Slough Cove Road (his nonchalance made me suspect he was either an aviary escapee or a recent release.) Wiggy’s Pond, in the Sengekontacket development in Oak Bluffs, had three ring-necked ducks and a first-year lesser black-backed gull, probably the same individual that Allan Keith recently noted at the head of the Lagoon. And at the latter location, the coots in residence had been joined by a single pied-billed grebe, the first I’ve seen this season.
We may be at the nadir of the birding year, but on the Vineyard, even the worst birding is good, and it only gets better from here. Keep alert, spend time in the field, and let the hot line at 508-627-4922 know what you’ve found.