Bird identification puzzles, as with all mysteries, are great fun to work on and, best of all, to solve. Tuesday Pete Gilmore, Lanny McDowell and I were birding around the flower gardens at the Farm Institute in Katama. We watched several Savannah sparrows perched on the fences surrounding the garden, when suddenly another larger “sparrow” landed.
“Get on that bird!” we all shouted. To translate, that means find the bird in your binoculars and figure out what you are seeing. We all did and then were quiet for a moment. Then someone said, “It looks like a lark sparrow.” Someone else said, “No, that isn’t quite right, I think it is a vesper sparrow.” The more the three of us observed the mystery bird, the less comfortable we felt with our identification. We had left our field guides in the car but, as usual, Lanny had his camera ready. Pete and I circled on one side of the fence and flushed the mystery “sparrow” up onto the fence. Quite by luck, the bird landed right in front of Lanny, who snapped a series of photos.
Pete and I looked at three field guides and checked out pertinent field marks, trying to remember what we had just seen. We agreed that it had a forked tail that was dark brown, and that the bird had a white belly with brown streaks along its sides and flanks. We couldn’t decide whether it had an eye ring (white circle around the eye) or whether it had a streaked nape (back of neck) or mantle (center of back). We split up, promising to stay in touch after we perused the photos that Lanny would be sending through e-mail after he got back from the dentist. We were leaning towards lark sparrow as we went our separate ways.
Lanny sent out the pictures to birders and ornithologists both near and far. Pete, Lanny and I hit the books with photos on our computer screens to use as clues. What a treat to have them, as it made our task relatively easy. We saw that our mystery bird had a buffy breast which was streaked with brown and became white on the flanks and belly. It had a black malar stripe (feathers along the side of the lower jaw) and above that, the sub-moustachial stripe was white. The ear covert (patches around where the ear is located) was a light brown surround by a black border. No clear white eye ring was present. The greater wing-coverts and tertials (feathers that cover the flight feathers) were rufous. One photo showed the feet well, which clinched the identification for some.
Paging through the guide books, Lanny, Pete and I decided that the mystery bird was a Lapland longspur. Others birders e-mailed in and agreed. The mystery was solved.
Lapland longspurs are probably just bigger and stronger flying sparrows, although some ornithologists think they are more closely related to buntings. They are called longspurs because of the long nail on their hind toe. They are not very common visitors to the Vineyard and usually occur in small flocks. We primarily find them in November and December, and practically never in the spring. Lapland longspurs prefer barrier beaches, fields and plains where they feed on seeds, grains and insects.
Wood ducks have started moving and several people have spotted them. Jim Creeden and Arnie Fischer spotted a male in Pear Tree Cove on Tisbury Great Pond on Sept. 16. Rob Culbert spotted several wood ducks on Edgartown Great Pond on Sept. 22.
Rob Culbert is still leading his weekly bird walks out of the regional high school faculty parking lot at 9 a.m. Rob has found, as have many of us, that the bird migration has been pretty sparse this month. On Sept. 5 at the Oak Bluffs pumping station, he counted four red-eyed vireos, one Philadelphia vireo, a northern waterthrush and a ruby-throated hummingbird. On Sept. 12 at the head of Lake Tashmoo he had tree, barn and rough-winged swallows and bobolinks at Thimble Farm. Sept. 19 Rob and crew birded Morning Glory Farm field and counted 10 killdeer and one golden plover. He also had chipping sparrows and pine warblers in adjacent pine trees.
Rob Bierregaard e-mailed first that he was surprised that Isabel, the osprey from Lake Tashmoo — unlike Meadow, also from the same nest but last year — did not wander all over the Atlantic seaboard before migrating. Isabel is still on Bonaire. Bea, from the Chappaquiddick nest, is in the Bahamas, and Caley from Katama and Moffett from Felix Neck are still wandering around the Vineyard.
Sept. 19, Flip Harrington and I counted 16 killdeer and one osprey on Tisbury Great Pond. Eight women that graduated from high school in 1960 got together for a reunion in Chilmark and West Tisbury the weekend of Sept. 17. On Sept. 18, we walked on the Spalding/Silva property on Tisbury Great Pond and spotted both sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks, a merlin, a great blue heron, six mallards and heard a Carolina wren. The next day we added a belted kingfisher.
Lanny McDowell and I birded Aquinnah early morning on Sept. 19 and found a merlin, 15 cedar waxwings, five bobolinks and a Carolina wren. Later in the day, Maggie Marx and I watched a black-billed cuckoo fly through our Quenames yard.
Flip Harrington and I hosted Victor Emamuel of VENT Tours and Rose Styron of Vineyard Haven on Sept. 21. We went to the Gay Head Cliffs and Lobsterville in Aquinnah, Black Point and Tisbury Great Pond in Chilmark. The best birds were an American kestrel and sharp-shinned hawk at the cliffs, a merlin on Lighthouse Road, and both black and surf scoters. The day before, Victor and Rose had seen least sandpipers and semipalmated plovers on the beach on West Chop.
Sept. 22, Lanny McDowell, Pete Gilmore and I were at the Farm Institute in Katama. Along with the Lapland longspur we also spotted bobolinks, a northern harrier, Savannah, song and chipping sparrows, white-breasted nuthatches and tufted titmice.
Susan Strang counted three great egrets at West Basin in Aquinnah on Sept. 20. On Sept. 17, Dale Carter finally counted more snowy egrets than great egrets: four snowys and two great egrets.
Tim Leland spotted a peregrine falcon at Wasque on Sept. 19. Several peregrines have been seen on Chappaquiddick and the Vineyard in the last couple of weeks.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-627-4922 or e-mail to email@example.com.