It is always exciting to find a new bird species for the Vineyard and perhaps even more so during the annual Christmas Bird Count! The bird in question is a fish crow. Here is the rub. In the last few years many Island birders have “heard” what they felt were fish crows and a couple have seen crows which were smaller than our native American crows. How does one verify the existence of these crows on the Vineyard?
Fish crows are 15.5 inches in length, American crows 17.5. Both are jet black. The fish crow has a smaller bill and thinner legs and flies with a faster wingbeat. These are all tough field marks unless you see the two together. The best way to differentiate between the two crows is by their voice. The American crow utters a “caw” or “cah,” the fish crow “uh, uh” or “car.” However, young American crows when begging for food can sound like a fish crow.
I am the doubting Thomasina. When Allan Keith, joined by Bob Stymeist, who volunteers for the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and is an excellent birder, and Wayne Petersen, the coauthor of Birds of Massachusetts (no more said), found a roost of crows on the North Road, some of which were making the fish crow calls, I still had to call for more information. This is what I received from Allan et al, slightly edited: “The roost was in the trees about 25 yards south of North Road. We found the birds there between 5:45 and 6 a.m. and both heard and saw at least 20 and possibly as many as 30 as the crows were all leaving the roost. The total number of crows in the roost was in the 350 range and some had already left by the time we arrived. We heard the fish crows calling among the others from a point on Tabor House Road about one quarter mile away: There was no wind so the sound carried very well. Wayne Petersen and Bob Stymeist heard the birds first so we drove over to North Road to get closer.”
I queried the group, remembering that young American crows begging can sound like fish crows. I learned that at this time of year the American crows have been weaned and no longer beg for food. Bingo, I was convinced!
In the past few years Lanny McDowell, Porter Turnbull and I were sure we saw fish crows in a dumpster in Oak Bluffs, Rob Culbert was sure he saw a fish crow near the Oak Bluffs Fire Station and Norris avenue, and Tom Chase was sure he has heard fish crows at one time over the last 15 years. So I had to wait for the “ringers” from off-Island to convince me.
Although fish crows were seen in very small numbers in Massachusetts in the late 1880s, they didn’t nest there until 1973. They were rare on Cape Cod until 1982. Now they nest on the Cape and are common in Falmouth and Woods Hole.
Vineyard birders and nonbirders alike have noted that crows commute daily from the Cape to the Vineyard and have since the 1980s if not before. It was thought that all these were American crows. Norma Holmes and Tom Chase have observed crow roosts in Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs and Long Point over the years. Rob Culbert adds that “If the commute theory is true, we would expect to be able to follow the fish crow calls and flight; are they heading toward West Chop, or are they fanning out across the Island? In the afternoon/evening the arriving crows seem to split into two groups off West Chop, with some heading up the North Shore and others heading into Vineyard Haven harbor. I have watched the evening commute for years and believe it is mostly a silent one, with no vocalizations ”
So the probable reason that we haven’t verified the presence of fish crows on the Island before this is that they appear to arrive after dark and leave before light and commute silently. All the Vineyard birders will be carefully observing crow roosts in the future for additional information. Nice job, Allan, Bob and Wayne.
The unofficial results of the 2010 Christmas Bird Count are 118 species. See an article on page seven for more details. The total list will be printed in a future issue.
Several species were seen during the count period (three days before and three after). Genevieve Jacobs spotted a Eurasian wigeon in with the American wigeon at the head of the Lagoon in Oak Bluffs on Jan. 4. Flip Harrington and I had a common redpoll at our Chilmark feeder on Jan. 3 — a day late! Charlie Finnerty and Cherie Mason spotted what he was sure was an osprey on Dec. 31 by Mone Insurance in Vineyard Haven. Unfortunately the bird has not been seen since. This is a new late winter record for the Island and we hope the bird is on its way to Cuba by now.
Happy Spongberg ran into the crows coming to roost on Jan. 3 as she was returning from the Chilmark library to her home off Tea Lane. At the corner of North Road and Tabor House Road she watched what she called a “murder of crows” 400 strong flying along. She had never seen so many crows together, no doubt headed for the area where the fish crows are roosting.
Genevieve Jacobs spotted an American coot at the head of the Lagoon on Dec. 29 and counted 16 black-crowned night herons and one great blue heron in the same location on Dec. 30.
Ozzie and Bert Fischer spotted a palm warbler in Ozzie’s yard at Bettlebung Corner on Dec. 21.
Richard Steves and Laurel found a dovekie in the parking lot at Lucy Vincent Beach on Jan. 1. They released it at Clam Cove and watched it swim away on flat calm water. The hope is the dovekie will relax a while and then join other pelagic species offshore.
Rob Culbert, Flip Harrington and I spotted a pair of common mergansers on Edgartown Great Pond on Jan. 1.
The Mill Pond has been a nice spot for waterfowl. Both Sarah Mayhew and Warren Woessner spotted ring-necked ducks and gadwalls as well as hooded and red-breasted mergansers there on Dec. 30.
Sarah Mayhew spotted a belted kingfisher in Menemsha on Dec. 31.
Debbie and Jim Carter were given a belated Christmas present when they spotted the short-eared owl along the Herring Creek at Katama on Dec. 31.
Jeff Verner e-mailed that his feeders have been busy this early winter and that a tree sparrow, house and Carolina wrens have visited within the last couple of weeks. In November and early December he also heard great horned owls in the woods near his Edgartown home. He also spotted the short-eared owl at Katama late Christmas afternoon.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds 2. Her Web site is vineyardbirds2.com.