“Look, there is a rose-colored bird on the feeder that looks like it’s been in a train wreck. Its bill is all bent out of shape.”
“Cool, it is a white-winged crossbill, and that is the way the bill is supposed to be. I have been hoping the crossbills would come to our feeder; they have been seen in several places on the Vineyard and even on Chappaquiddick.”
Daniel Waters spotted the first white-winged crossbill at his Indian Hill feeder on Jan. 13. This bird was an immature male and it stayed a couple of days. Lanny McDowell also had an immature male which was joined by a female white-winged crossbill on Jan. 13 and 14. The question was, are the males the same birds? It was Dan who studied the photographs that he and Lanny took and concluded they were indeed different birds. Why? Because one individual crossed its bill from right to left and the other from left to right. Eagle-eye Dan was correct.
Lanny McDowell received an e-mail from Skip Bettencourt and Nancy Hugger and I received a call from Fran Clay that they had a white-winged crossbill at their Chappaquiddick feeders. Stan Mercer called to report one at his Menemsha Crossroads feeder. All these birds arrived around the same time. Feeling very jealous, I was pleased when an immature male appeared at our feeder on Jan. 14 and remained through Jan. 18.
Both male and female white-winged crossbills have black tails and two huge white wing bars on their black wings. The females are dirty yellow with a yellow breast and rump. The adult males are rose instead of yellow. The immature males are a mix of both the male and female colors. Crossbills hail from the northern coniferous forests where their food of choice is seeds from conifers, black alder, birches, beach and foxtail grasses and huckleberry. To procure their food they use the combination of their bills and tongues. The upper and lower mandibles pry open the cones, then the crossbills lift the seeds out with their tongues.
White-winged crossbills, and their cousins, red crossbills, travel and feed in flocks most of the year. If you have the opportunity to find a flock you will enjoy watching these little finches crawl around using their beaks to haul them up a branch and their feet to move items to their mouths much the way parrots do. The flocking instinct starts to wane in January as soon as the males will start singing to attract a mate and nest. Normally the crossbills winter and nest in the boreal forest but will head south if there is an overpopulation or a lack of food. If this occurs the crossbills might breed south of their normal territory. Wouldn’t that be a first for the Vineyard if they stayed and bred? Doubtful but wishful thinking.
Rob Culbert found two black vultures on the roost in Vineyard Haven on Jan. 11. The same day Cynthia Meisner shared with me a great Carolina wren tale. Seems that in the midst of the snowstorm she found two Carolina wrens wedged into a straw pocketbook she had hanging in her garage. Nice way to stay “snug as a bug in a rug.”
Joan Jenkinson watched an eastern towhee near her feeders on North Road in Chilmark on Jan. 11. Bert Fischer spotted one in his Aquinnah yard on Jan. 19 and Dave Tchorz and Kati Alley of Oak Bluffs reported one in their yard on Jan. 20. Dick Jennings watched a barn owl cruising near Thimble Farm and had northern flickers feeding in his yard on suet. Debbie Morelli was surprised to find a northern flicker on her suet. An easy meal in lousy weather makes sense to me, whether in Tisbury or Chilmark.
Many people have mentioned that they have many fewer blue jays than in past years. One of the reasons is that Tom Scott has 30 around his place on Oyster Pond! He also has red-breasted nuthatches and two Carolina wrens that are regulars at his feeder. Tom spotted the leucistic song sparrow by Jason’s in Chilmark and also saw the crows that have white in their wings that are in the area of the Portuguese American Club in Oak Bluffs.
Eastern bluebirds have graced a couple of Vineyard feeders recently. Marilyn Miller and Ron Zentner counted four bathing in their birdbath on Jan. 14. They hadn’t seen bluebirds in their yard since March, 2006! Lanny McDowell photographed bluebirds in his West Tisbury birdbath on Jan. 16. Dave and Kati have spotted eastern bluebirds around their Oak Bluffs home for the last couple of weeks. Matt Pelikan watched 9 turn into 13 eastern bluebirds huddled together in the crotch of a tree by the Wakeman Center. They had found a lee in the cold and wind of the Jan. 24. A yellow-bellied sapsucker and northern flicker settled in beneath the huddled bluebirds catching what few rays there were and staying in the lee side of the tree trunk.
Brown creepers have been seen in Chilmark and Oak Bluffs. Jules Ben David had one in his Oak Bluffs yard on Jan. 17. Not to be outdone by his brother, Gus Ben David watched one cavorting around a tree at the World of Reptiles and Birds on Jan. 21. Happy and Steve Spongberg watched one climbing around an oak in their Chilmark yard Jan. 17.
The redhead was still at the head of the Lagoon on Jan. 16 according to Margaret Curtin and Nancy Weaver. Lanny McDowell photographed three northern pintails at the Mill Pond in West Tisbury on Jan. 15. Matt Pelikan mentioned that two female pintails were still in the Mill Pond on Jan. 20.
A handsome adult bald eagle was seen over Town Cove on Jan. 13 by Chris Murphy. Flip Harrington spotted the adult eagle flying from the Chilmark/West Tisbury line toward Music Street on the morning of Jan. 16 and the same afternoon Mal Jones and Francie Desmone spotted it on the ice on Tisbury Great Pond off Deep Bottom Cove. Tara Whiting was riding in the fields of Whiting Farm and saw the bald eagle fly over her headed toward North Road on Jan. 19.
Ozzie Fischer not only has white-throated sparrows in his Chilmark yard, but was visited by a flock of close to 100 American robins and one common grackle on Jan. 18. They were enjoying a bath in a large puddle.
Dan Waters had a leucistic (mostly white but not albino) American robin in his yard on Jan. 17. It may be the same bird Lanny McDowell photographed earlier this year. Dan has named it the Ghost Robin and it returned on Jan. 21. The next day a flock of American robins and cedar waxwings arrived to join the Ghost.
Lanny McDowell’s female white-winged crossbill was still around on Jan. 18, a week after she arrived. Lanny also had a chipping sparrow at his feeder. For some birders this isn’t big news, but for Lanny it is. He usually doesn’t see them at his feeder until spring.
Keith Jackson was annoyed that he had forgotten his camera on Jan. 19 as he watched a horned grebe swimming in Edgartown harbor. Martha Moore reported a yellow-rumped warbler on the east side of Tisbury Great Pond on Jan. 22 and cedar waxwings on a winterberry the next day.
If you happen to be going to the airport for a flight or a meal check out the bushes next to the entrance to the terminal as Matt Pelikan counted ten field sparrows there on Jan. 20.
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 II. Her Web site is vineyardbirds2.com.