Migrating red-winged blackbirds have arrived! The red-wings that had left last fall are beginning to return after spending the winter in the southeastern United States. A sure sign of the coming spring even though it is still February. They announce their presence by their arrival at bird feeders, their brilliant red epaulets on their wings flashing and contrasting to the black everywhere else, and their singing from treetops. Soon they will be singing from our wetlands as the males set up their territories. The females, which are streaked brown sparrow-like birds, will arrive in another few weeks.
We also have small numbers of red-winged blackbirds spending the winter here. They tend to travel in larger flocks, have not started to sing yet, and usually keep their red epaulets concealed by other black wing feathers. They will soon be leaving for their more northern breeding grounds.
The red-wings showed up on Feb. 12; Lanny McDowell was the first to find them when he saw two males at his feeder. The next day he had at least four red-wings along with a common grackle at his feeder, while Sheila and Tim Baird had a flock descend on their feeder the same day, along with a brown-headed cowbird.
And speaking of spring, Randy Rynd observed an American woodcock as it walked around near a melted puddle (yet another sign of spring) on Stoney Hill Road on Feb. 11.
But as might be expected in February, there are some wintertime bird sightings as well.
Tom Rivers observed a winter wren hanging around his woodpile recently. He reports that it loves to disappear into his woodpile — it is probably gleaning bugs from the bark. This species is probably more common than we realize, since it is very secretive and easy to overlook. And so different from its larger cousin, the Carolina wren.
On Feb. 12, Scott Stephens found the first or second year Iceland gull reported in last week’s column at Crystal Lake. This is not the same bird that had been hanging out at Ocean Park and the Steamship Authority docks in Oak Bluffs every winter from 1995 to 2008 (which has not been seen this winter).
Ken Beebe reports a flock of purple sandpipers along the jetty on the Chilmark side of the channel into Menemsha Pond on Feb. 12. He also found a white-winged crossbill in the treetops along the road to the beach at Lake Tashmoo. A second report of several crossbills comes from an unidentified birder who found them near that locale, on Feb. 10, in the trees along the power lines running through West Chop Woods.
Scott Stephens and Penny Uhlendorf found a brown thrasher at the head of Lake Tashmoo on Feb. 14.
On Feb. 15, Happy and Steve Spongberg and John Flender were out at Long Point Wildlife Refuge and became the latest people to observe the snowy owl that has been there for quite a while. It was a real treat for them to get such close views and then to have it seem to follow them and watch them as they headed off the beach (do the birds go people-watching?). John Flender was able to get some great photos.
Anne Lemenager has observed turkey vultures cruising around East Chop for the past few weeks. Apparently they are feeding on dead ducks and other birds that are frozen in the ice.
I will conclude this column by discussing the results of this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count, which took place from Feb. 13 to Feb. 16. There are some amazing results online at birdsource.org/gbbc/. As I write this on Tuesday afternoon, almost 67,000 checklists have been submitted, with 586 species observed and 7,672,752 birds counted. While this is fewer than last year’s results, checklists are not due until March 1, so there still are many checklists to submit (including my three lists). The above Web site provides many ways for you to look at this data, from lists by town, by state, or nationally. Or the computer will draw distribution maps for any species while you wait; the maps can look at this year’s data or compare any two years of count results going back to 1998, the first year of the count.
So far, there have been 19 checklists submitted from the Vineyard (I could not find any reports from Chilmark or Aquinnah), totaling 3,044 individual birds. Highlights of these lists include wood ducks, American wigeon, bald eagles, American coots, razorbills, great-horned owls, tufted titmouse, red-breasted nuthatch, brown creeper, eastern bluebird, hermit thrush, brown thrashers, yellow-rumped warblers, fox sparrows, red-winged blackbirds (from Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven), common grackles, and pine siskins.
Please remember to call in your sightings to the bird line at 508-627-4922. We will not know about it if you do not tell us.
Robert Culbert a bird tour leader and ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.