It all started with a message on the bird hot line which I received on July 2. A Chappaquiddick summer resident called to say that she had a pair of merlins that appeared to be nesting on her property. Hmm, said I. I was pretty sure there were no records of merlins nesting in Massachusetts, but I checked the Birds of Massachusetts, by R. Veit and W. Petersen before I called. I was right.
I thanked the woman who called and then as politely as I could I suggested that probably what she was seeing was a pair of Cooper’s hawks as merlins didn’t nest in Massachusetts.
Her response was that she knew the difference between a Cooper’s hawk and a merlin and that her daughter worked with raptors in Vermont and was on Island for the Fourth and verified the identification. Oops, said I.
I was unable to get to Chappaquiddick on July 3, but luckily Matt Pelikan did. His e-mail: “By golly, it’s a very territorial pair of merlins, definitely two birds, a male and a female and very touchy.” Matt was unable to find a nest and so he surmised that because both birds were ripping around at once that there might not be a nest or perhaps an empty one common to housekeeping pairs of raptors.
Early morning on the Fourth of July, Lanny McDowell with camera in hand, Allan Keith and I took the first ferry to Chappaquiddick after arranging a meeting with the landowner. We literally stepped out of the car at the designated address when a merlin started scolding us. We looked up at the top of one of the pitch pines next to the house, and lo and behold, there was a female merlin giving us what for! We didn’t stay long, just enough time for Lanny to get some nice photos of the female merlin, as we knew we were really upsetting her. We never did see the male.
To determine whether these merlins are actually nesting without causing a nest failure will be difficult. If we do find that there is a nest and that the pair produces young, Chappaquiddick will have the distinction of having the first record of nesting merlins in Massachusetts. This would be the second coup for Chappy, as it also has the first nesting record for American oystercatcher back in 1969.
For the record, merlins traditionally nest in wild places such as the northern forests in the United States, Canada and Eurasia. However, since the 1960s they have been found nesting in towns in the northern prairies. Their nest normally is located in a tree and frequently uses old nests that had been previously built and used by crows, other hawks and in the west, magpies. The female lays four to five eggs and she is the main incubator as the only time she is off the nest is when the male brings her food.
We are not sure when the Chappy merlins appeared as no one was in the surrounding houses until June 23. Normally merlins appear in Massachusetts in late April or early May. Now if this nest does exist and the incubation time is 28 to 32 days, it could be that young already are in the nest. Both parents remain with the young until they fledge. The female actually remains on the nest brooding the youngsters after they hatch and the male brings food to the female who then feeds it to the young. It takes the young an additional 29 days, plus or minus, to fledge. So you do the math, there should be young fledging at any time if the pair arrived on schedule.
A pair of merlins were spotted on Chappaquiddick and verified on July 3 by Matt Pelikan and observed by Lanny McDowell, Allan Keith and myself on July 4th.
An adult yellow-crowned night heron was observed by Dick Jennings and family by the Narrows on Chappaquiddick on July 8 and two short-billed dowitchers at Poucha Pond on July 5.
Also of interest: on July 1, 1984, I banded a black-backed gull at Cape Pogue on Chappaquiddick. Steve Feinberg found the bird dead at Norton’s Point and noticed the band. He gave the band to Dick Jennings who sent it to the banding office in Washington and found out that I was the bander! That black-backed gull lived 24 years! My records show the longest lifespan of a great black-backed gull is 20 years. Perhaps this is a new record.
John Liller scoped the tip of Little Beach on the Fourth of July and spotted a royal tern. Nice spot!
Allan Keith discovered a pair of nesting bobolinks in Keith’s field in Chilmark. He spotted a male on June 16 and figured it was a late migrant as he didn’t spot it again until July 3. One strip in the field was not mowed and when Allan went to mow it he saw a female pop up and then the male. Needless to say that strip still isn’t mowed. Allan also has a pair of nesting Eastern kingbirds and the first Canada geese to return after the molt arrived in the Keith fields on July 8. On July 7, Allan spotted two black-crowned night herons flying over Turtle Brook Farm and the day before he saw two laughing gulls at Squibnocket Beach.
On July 1 and 8, I took groups from the Chilmark Community Center bird watching. On July 1, we birded Great Rock Bight in Chilmark where we had a nice selection of warblers including many American redstarts. On July 8, we went to Quansoo and had two black skimmers, 24 short-billed dowitchers, five piping plovers, two American oystercatchers, 12 least sandpipers, two sanderlings, four semipalmated sandpipers and eight semipalmated plovers. There was one black-bellied plover in breeding plumage chasing another black-bellied plover that was not wearing breeding plumage. We also had a couple of greater yellowlegs. It was a beautiful morning and marks with other bird sightings the beginning of the fall shorebird migration.
Rich Stanton spotted his first short-billed dowitcher at Quansoo on July 1. He also had 12 black-bellied plovers in breeding plumage. Rich had seen one breeding black-bellied plover on June 27 in the same location. Rich spotted one black skimmer and more short-billed dowitchers on July 4 at Quansoo.
There have been several greater and a couple of Cory’s shearwaters found dead on the South Shore beaches and offshore. Three of these birds will be sent to Tufts to figure out what killed them. Red tide has been ruled out. It will be interesting to learn the results of the necropsies. On a cheerier note, Bert Fischer spotted a greater shearwater fishing off Dogfish Bar on July 4 and Flip Harrington and Francis Bernard spotted many greater shearwaters and Wilson’s storm petrels off Gay Head on July 8.
Warren Woessner birded around James Pond on July 5 and spotted a piping plover bathing. He heard a prairie warbler singing and watched bank swallows. In the pond there were two snowy egrets. On July 7, Warren spotted eight short-billed dowitchers and four willets along the shore of Sengekontacket Pond.
The pea hen is still in Chilmark and is running with a group of terrorist turkeys, according to Basil Welch.
Please report your bird sightings on the bird hot line at 508-627-4922.