This stocky penguin-like species is black on its back and white on its throat and belly, is at most nine inches long, has a short stubby bill, and seems to lack a neck. Its legs are placed toward the rear of the bird to facilitate its swimming underwater, so it does not get around very well on land.
This species is rarely observed on or near the Vineyard, even though it is one of the most abundant seabirds in the North Atlantic. The breeding population at Thule in northwestern Greenland alone has been estimated to be 30 million birds! We do not see them much because they stay well out to sea at this time of the year, diving underwater to catch their food of crustaceans and small fish.
The species is the dovekie. On the infrequent occasions that it is found in our waters, it is often in poor health. Sustained, strong easterly winds may make feeding conditions on the open ocean unsuitable and then it pushes the weakened, hungry birds landward. Sightings on the Vineyard are usually of single birds, but to have two sightings in one winter is unusual.
The first sighting, previously reported in this column, was on Dec. 21, 2008, the day after a snow storm. Marie Doebler saw the dovekie struggling to get around in her yard, frequently falling into footsteps in the snow. Scott Stephens was able to catch the bird and transport it to Vineyard Sound to release it, where it immediately dove under water and swam away.
Jean Wexler called me on Feb. 20 with the second sighting of the winter, also after a storm. She found the dovekie beside her house in West Tisbury, over a mile from the shore. Unfortunately, the dovekie died before I could get to her house; that specimen is now on its way to Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.
In both cases, strong winds carried the birds to the Island, where they crash landed well away from the water. They are entirely ocean going, or pelagic. If you see a dovekie on land, please take it to the calmer waters of either Vineyard or Nantucket Sound and release it, so it has a chance to swim and feed, regain its strength, and rejoin the rest of the dovekies out at sea.
Spring migration continues to accelerate as more and more migrants are arriving on the Island. Six species of colorful songbirds are mentioned first — three are blue, one is bright red and black, and two are mostly yellow. Their bright colors catch our eyes and confirm that spring is here and warmer temperatures are coming!
Fran Clay of Chappaquiddick reports two different birds with blue on them. The first is the tree swallow, which showed up on April 1. She also has an indigo bunting that arrived on April 2. As of April 8, both species are still present.
Kathy and Steve Rose found their first tree swallows at the Oak Bluffs pumping station on April 3. They were hawking insects by swooping over the water. This species is almost always the first swallow to return.
Susan Shea observed a scarlet tanager in her yard in Ocean Heights in Edgartown on April 3.
April 4 produced two sightings of blue grosbeaks. Martha Moore spotted one near Middle Cove of Tisbury Great Pond, and Laurie Clements spotted a “stunning blue bird” at the dog pound in Vineyard Haven, which Penny Uhlendorf saw later and identified as a blue grosbeak. This grosbeak is similar to the indigo bunting but is larger and has two prominent brown wingbars.
And there are two sightings of prothonotary warblers as well. On April 5, one of them hit a window at Harriet Otteson’s house in Chilmark, but survived and flew off about 10 minutes later. The second sighting was on April 6, when Katherine Colon and Carol Dell found one at the Oak Bluffs pumping station. The pumping station is a great place to see migrating birds in the spring!
On April 6, the first pine warbler of the season showed up at Gus Ben David’s feeder at the World of Reptiles and Birds. He also reports that the parula warbler that showed up on March 30 is still present.
Of course there are also sightings of birds that are not quite as colorful. Happy and Steve Spongberg observed a bald eagle gliding from perch to perch as they drove along Tea Lane in Chilmark on April 5. This is a somewhat unusual sighting since it was not near the water. Two days earlier the Spongbergs were driving down Tea Lane when they observed two tom turkeys fighting in the middle of the road, oblivious to the approaching car. A third tom turkey that was with a nearby flock of hens started coming toward the two fighters, but their car finally dispersed the fighters.
Claudia Rogers reports that the American oystercatchers have returned to the Lighthouse Beach in Edgartown on April 2
The osprey festival was held on Saturday April 4, and I led a bird walk around the sanctuary to start the festivities. Despite the steady 30 miles per hour winds, our highlights included a flock of buffleheads bouncing in the waves, Canada geese already on their nests, and about 100 double-crested cormorants in their nesting colony on Sarson’s Island. I observed 10 cormorants there on March 31.
On April 5 I led a group of birders around Katama. Our highlights included observations of killdeer calling and flying above Slough Cove Road and Crackatuxet Cove, two northern harriers hunting near Crackatuxet Cove, and a pair of gadwall on Slough Cove. We also observed a feeding frenzy of red-breasted mergansers on Mattakesset Bay; these birds were diving so quickly and frequently that we only observed 10-15 birds at a time. In five minutes the feeding frenzy was over and I counted 110 individuals in this flock. With their bellies full, we were then treated to the male merganser’s courtship antics. Quite a show!
The activity of birds is really increasing now, and larger numbers of migrants will show up as the month progresses.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-627-4922 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Culbert leads guided birding tours and is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.