“You got to be in it to win it” and “You can’t win if you don’t play” are lottery slogans that also ring true when it comes to birding. The nice thing about birding on the Vineyard is that, if you can get out the door, you can find birds, and find them in a variety of inspiring habitats.
You can go birding with other folks of comparable abilities. You can bird with people who know a lot less than you do. What’s usually recommended is to go out with more knowledgeable observers. You will learn a lot from them.
However, it’s very tempting to rely on the experts to make most of the calls. They hear more bird sounds, hear them first and recognize them earlier. They pick up on birds in flight faster and identify them farther away. It’s great to see what birders who are good in the field can do, but you often do not get to make up your own mind about an identification before someone else has already called it.
A case can be made for birding alone. Sometimes that’s by necessity — there’s no one to go with — but it can be by choice. As one’s birding skills and experience expand, there is a vast middle ground between beginner and advanced, when a lot can be gained by spending birding time without the benefit of a readily accessible second opinion.
When you go alone, you establish your own pace and identification modus operandi: the process you go through to eliminate, consciously and unconsciously, certain birds, as you include others as possible candidates. You narrow the options; you decide the discards; you pick the contenders. Strangely and wonderfully, the more time you spend identifying birds, the more challenging cases come your way.
Setting your own pace is especially advantageous. There’s the speed at which you move from location to location. There is also the speed at which your body operates within the space you occupy, which translates into stealth.
While there are a few birders who manage to see and hear lots of birds while moving through terrain at breakneck speed and talking whenever they feel like it, others do best when they impact their surroundings the least. The opportunities for staying put, still and quiet, are less likely when there’s a friend at your elbow. Watching by yourself, you alone determine how long to wait for that chat to come up out of the bramble. Further, no bird arrives announced by another observer. Each is a surprise; and there is entertainment value in that.
When you bird alone, the responsibility for gathering enough definitive information is yours. Sometimes the conclusion will be that there is not enough information on hand to make an informed identification. When someone else makes a call, it is tempting to concur, even when your own doubts persist.
Let’s not discount the camaraderie and shared elation of spotting a great bird in the company of friends. It can be a great moment. It is equally exciting to make your own discovery. Lots of factors make a sighting memorable: a new species, a “lifer,” certainly takes the cake; finding a bird out of its expected range or out of season works nicely; recognizing a bird after an extended effort or chase does it; an unusual location adds drama; miscalling a bird, then getting it right, is a treat; and distinguishing an unusual bird while perusing a group of more common ones also does the trick.
Whether you are birding alone or out with your birding buddies, spring bird watching usually begins with the arrival of red-winged blackbirds, grackles soon thereafter, with brown-headed cowbirds on their heels; but an osprey, usually about a month later, carries the drama of seasonal change you can see and feel. We are more likely to get excited over the successful journey of a single glorious raptor returning in mid-March than the flocks of anonymous blackbirds in February. The ospreys, the ones nesting on the Island, really do arrive just in time for spring, symbols of warmer times to come, a season of growth and longer days.
We are lucky to get some of the very first fish hawks in New England, and they are already filtering into Vineyard skies. Until this year, the earliest observed arrival had been on March 14, six years ago. Then Nancy Hugger’s sighting over Chappaquiddick at the beginning of last week, on March 9, set a new early record. Another report was called in by Jeff Komarinetz on March 10. Then Dick Knight called in another observation on March 13. And so it goes.
It should also be noted, sadly, that Jeff also discovered last Friday the lifeless body of the beautiful swallow-tailed kite mentioned in last week’s Bird News.
The ospreys’ arrival heralds not just the pending return of other seasonal avian residents and northward migrants, but also the phased departure of the thousands of sea ducks, loons, grebes and gulls that make Vineyard waters their home only in winter. The earliest ospreys of the season are often sighted in the vicinity of existing nest platforms. And they are frequently heard first, then seen. It’s like a knock on the door by an old friend, reliable and welcome.
Reports called in to the bird hot line this last week include the sighting of a pair of early oystercatchers on the wing in Oak Bluffs by Catherine Deese, and Bert Fischer’s noting of five snow buntings off Moshup’s Trail in Aquinnah, as well as a northern shrike he has been seeing off and on since mid-January.
My tip of the week: up to 17 eastern meadowlarks have been frequenting the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation’s open field north of Misty Meadows Farm, called Nat’s Farm Meadow, off Old County Road in West Tisbury. If you do not see them, listen for their songs and calls.
Please call in interesting bird news to the hot line at 508-627-4922, leaving your name and phone number.