November is the season for a suite of visitors I call the open-country birds. This is a diverse group of species connected not by taxonomy or point of origin, but rather by migratory habits, a tendency to flock in winter, and a preference for austere habitats like beaches, grassland, and large pastures. While some of these species are easy to find and identify, others are wary and hence typically seen at a distance; to recognize them, a birder needs sharp eyes and ears and the ability to note subtle field marks at a long range.
The quintessential member of this group happens to be one of the easy ones to identify. The snow bunting, a hardy tundra breeder, winters at our latitude and somewhat farther south; its winter plumage resembles that of a white-bellied sparrow with bold white wing patches. Snow bunting flocks, sometimes very large ones, prefer the most desolate surroundings, often windswept beaches and dunes (Vern Laux likes to joke that they live by eating sand at this season). A trip to Wasque last weekend produced a flock of snow buntings for Susan Giordano, the first she has ever seen on the Vineyard.
Last Saturday, Katama produced a fine sampling of other open-country birds. A flock of about 75 American pipits were on the field at the land bank’s Norton Field preserve, visible from the roadside on along either Katama Road or Herring Creek Road. Another breeding species of high latitude or high elevation (the closest breeding site is atop Mount Washington), pipits gravitate to short grass or recently plowed fields during migration and winter. Traveling pipits can sometimes be heard high overhead giving a thin, high-pitched, two-note flight call — tsi-dip! — and closer to earth, their grayish-brown backs and prominent white tail edges aid identification. If they are uneasy, though, a flock of pipits can disappear into short grass with frustrating thoroughness.
Katama Farm yielded a flock 40 horned larks, frequenting plowed sections of the farm complex. I was unable to get within about 200 yards of these wary birds but could still discern their faint, jingling calls and see their black tails with narrow white edges. More obvious was a flock of about 20 eastern meadowlarks, flushed repeatedly from a Katama Farm hay field by an optimistic house cat. Apparently extirpated as a breeder on the Vineyard and declining throughout the region, meadowlarks forsake inland agricultural areas to flock up in coastal salt marshes, fields and pastures. Modest numbers of this unusual blackbird relative can almost always be found in late fall at Katama Farm.
The least gregarious member of my open-country suite, a single Ipswich sparrow turned up at the Farm Institute parking area. This large, pale subspecies of the savannah sparrow breeds exclusively on Sable Island, a glorified sandbar southeast of Nova Scotia, migrating and sometimes wintering along the Vineyard’s south shore. A flock of about 75 mourning doves was also present at the farm, along with about 200 black-bellied plovers. American goldfinches and eastern bluebirds were both common around the farm. A single immature snow goose grazed with a flock of our resident Canada geese, and an immature northern harrier was working the area.
Last Friday, a late osprey was noted over Crackatuxet Cove in Edgartown. Roger Cook reported a snowy owl, mobbed by crows, at Squibnocket on Tuesday, as well as more meadowlarks. Also on Tuesday, a cattle egret was noted on a pasture at Misty Meadows Farm, off Old County Road in West Tisbury. The bird left by the end of the day but is very likely still in the area. Cattle egret is a less-than-annual rarity here, with most reports, like this one, involving single birds and coming in late fall. Tom Rivers noted another regional rarity, a black vulture, in Chilmark on Nov. 9, and this bird, too, is likely to hang around the Island for awhile.
Tuesday’s stiff wind and chilly temperatures complicated birding. Buffleheads were numerous on down-Island bays and ponds (80 were on Farm Pond alone), and small numbers of hooded mergansers were on Crystal Lake, Farm Pond, and the freshwater impoundment at the head of the Lagoon (where a winter wren was calling persistently and two belted kingfishers were playing tag). On the Edgartown Great Pond, about 700 scaup (all greater, as far as I could tell) roosted in two large flocks.
Migration is winding down, but many seasonal specialties are easy to find now, and late fall remains a good time for outrageous vagrants. (For instance, recently found in Rhode Island was an odd flycatcher that appeared to be a species of Elaenia, a genus of tropical flycatchers.) But you won’t find the oddities if you don’t go birding, and we won’t hear about what you find unless you call the bird hotline at 508-627-4922.