The Vineyard’s woodlands are beginning to undergo that fall change. The oaks are slowly turning a yellow-brown and dropping their leaves. The roads are covered with acorns, as this season has produced a bumper crop. There are many deer tracks amongst the acorns, for the white-tailed deer adores acorns. I discovered another creature that loves the nuts of the oaks, common grackles!

I was on my way home and suddenly the road in front of me, and the woods on either side were filled with black birds. I stopped and grabbed my binoculars to find out which species of black birds were surrounding the car. All 300-strong were common grackles. I watched them strutting around in the road and then flying short distances and landing on the woodland floor. The grackles flung the oak leaves aside and picked up an acorn. I said to myself, “There is no way that bird can swallow that nut.” The grackles’ beaks moved for a few moments, the outside shell fell off and the grackle was able to consume the soft, protein-rich meat of the acorn. “Wow, how did they do that?”

I did some research and discovered, after reading several bird books and checking out the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, that common grackles are fitted out with a tool to open acorns. On the roof of their upper mandible (bill) the grackles possess a hard keel with which they saw open acorns.

So if you run across a flock of black birds in the woods, stop and take a look. You will probably observe an interesting feeding behavior.

Bird Sightings

Dale Carter has to be the star observer of the great egret population on Chappaquiddick. On the north side of the Dike Bridge Dale counted 18 great egrets on Sept. 20. Then on Sept. 30 the number of great egrets she counted was a staggering 35 and was joined by a single great-blue heron. And speaking of great egret, Jon and Susan Pringle spotted a single great egret while watching mute swans at the Sheriff’s Meadow Pond in Edgartown on Oct. 2.

Red-breasted nuthatches have been in the news as people from Aquinnah to Chappaquiddick are reporting seeing them either in the field or at their feeders. Dale Carter noted that she has equal numbers of white and red-breasted nuthatches at her Chappaquiddick feeder. She added that this is the first sighting of the red-breasted nuthatches since spring of 2009.

Members of the Ben David family are keeping their eyes open. Gus had a kestrel harassing some of his pigeons at the World of Reptiles and Birds on Sept. 30, and Jules Ben David has a male Eastern towhee hanging around his Oak Bluffs yard feeder.

Maureen Reese called to ask for an ID on a small yellow and black bird she sees in Edgartown every summer. Maureen, the birds you are enjoying are American goldfinches.

Rob Culbert’s bird tour on Oct. 2 was at the state forest, and they observed five green-winged teal, a red-tailed hawk and a very yellowish Empidonax flycatcher, which did not call so Rob was unable to determine its ID. Continuing on to Little Beach, they found 40 greater yellowlegs in the marsh!

Bob Shriber and daughter Sarah were here for a couple of days. On Sept. 29 their best birds at Aquinnah were a northern gannet, an indigo bunting, several red-breasted nuthatches and bobolinks. The next day they added clay-colored sparrows to their trip list.

Lanny McDowell ventured out to Norton Point on Oct. 1 and counted 50 terns flying by in one hour. He identified both common and Forster’s terns and commented that there were more common than Forster’s terns. The next day Lanny started at Norton Point, where he heard and saw a single golden plover. He continued on up to Menemsha Hills and spotted a red-eyed vireo and a scarlet tanager.

On Oct. 3 Matt Pelikan, Lanny McDowell, Flip Harrington, Laurie Walker, Katharine Colon and Janet Holladay all were birding around Aquinnah. The best birds seen by one or more of that crew were: white-winged scoters, one Cooper’s, one red-tailed and five sharp-shinned hawks, a male kestrel, a merlin, two ospreys, a black-throated blue, yellow, yellow-rumped and Blackpoll warblers, a Dickcissel, an American pipit, an Empidonax flycatcher (probably an Acadian), a blue grosbeak and a white-crowned sparrow.


Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-627-4922 or e-mail to

Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her Web site is