On Thursday, Feb. 17, I led the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation’s winter walk at the Phillips Preserve hoping to hear the great horned owls that nest nearby.
Their call is quite distinctive, a series of deep hooting notes given after dark. No other bird sounds quite like this largest of North American owls, the great horned owl. And these owls can be heard at this time of the year, since the first three weeks of March are the peak time for these large owls to start nesting. There are some classic photos of great horned owls on their nests, but covered with snow. Even if the owls do not start nesting until sometime in May, they are all territorial now, so it is a good time to find out how many owls we have on the Island.
Great horned owls are common and widespread throughout North America, Central America and parts of South America, inhabiting most woodlands that are near fields. They can be as common as the ecologically similar red-tailed hawks, the hawks active all day and the owls active all night.
While great horned owls are common on the Cape, they arrived on the Vineyard only a dozen years ago. Apparently the waters separating us from the Cape are sufficient to act as a barrier that generally prevents their flying to the Vineyard.
We know of two pairs of great horned owls nesting on the Vineyard, one in Edgartown and one at the Phillips Preserve, near the western shore of Lake Tashmoo. And there is at least one great horned owl calling on Chappaquiddick; we do not know whether there is a pair nesting there.
There undoubtedly are more owls than that! After all, Scott Stephens and Penny Uhlendorf report that the Phillips Preserve pair has fledged several young in the last few years. These fledglings have to be somewhere; last fall there was an owl calling at the end of Lake street on the opposite shore of Lake Tashmoo.
We heard a distant great horned owl calling on the Feb. 17 walk, but it was so far to the south of us that we had to listen carefully to hear it. When closer to the owls, their call is hard to miss.
Because their calling is hard to miss, it will be simple for you to help determine how many great horned owls we have on the Island — listen for them in the next week or so and then let me know whether or not you hear them, and how many you hear. And please remember to let me know even if you do not hear them, since knowing where they are not is also important. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 508-693-4908.
A future bird news column will report the results of your owl surveys, providing an estimate of how many great horned owls are nesting on the Vineyard.
The best bird of the week has to be last week’s 10 greater white-fronted geese at Pimpneymouse Farm on Chappaquiddick. Has anyone seen them since their last reported sighting on Feb. 22? I can attest that they were not present on Feb. 23 — Wendy Culbert and I checked twice that day, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., to no avail. In between those times we checked out the severe erosion at the southwestern corner of Wasque Point — if you have not observed this natural phenomenon it is well worth your while to do so, although it is not really a story for this column.
If anyone has seen these greater white-fronted geese, please let this column know. And be sure to check any and all flocks of Canada geese, as these geese are wild birds and could be anywhere by now.
In the early morning of Feb. 23, Andrea Hartman explored the Old Courthouse Road area in West Tisbury and found a variety of birds, including 10 eastern bluebirds (and likely many more among the cedars and puckerbrush) and a yellow-rumped warbler. Later that morning, at Quenames, she observed a lot of dark-eyed juncos, two tufted titmice, red-breasted nuthatch, tree sparrow, song sparrow, red bellied woodpecker, and a big red-tailed hawk. She surmised that another hawk was present since the red-bellied woodpecker was trying to be invisible.
John Nelson reports that spring can not be too far away as he observed two territorial pairs of great black-backed gulls on State Beach on Feb. 24. He also observed a pair of American goldeneye diving in the open waters of Crystal Lake, and a pair of surf scoters in the Vineyard Haven outer harbor, near the beach across the road from Crystal Lake.
On Feb. 25, Tara Whiting reports flushing an American woodcock from the woods near Black Point Pond. The bird was not displaying, but that time is not too far away. She also observed a northern harrier cruising around over the boardwalk at Black Point Pond and heard a red-winged blackbird singing from the shores of Parsonage Pond. The latter is a true sign of the coming spring.
And speaking of red-winged blackbirds, on Feb. 26, Ginny Jones reports that for the first time this winter, she had one gobbling up bird seed from under the feeder in her yard on New Lane. She reports only the yellow was showing on the wing, so the male was not acting territorial by displaying its signature red patch on its wings.
Also on Feb. 26, Susie Bowman reports seeing five red-tailed hawks soaring and flying together over Conroy’s Apothecary and the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School.
And I just received a call from Joanie Ames in West Tisbury, who had just observed five common redpolls at her feeder. It was the first time she had seen this species, which only ventures south when their food is scarce on their normal wintering grounds, far to the north. Their food must be scarce up north, because they have been relatively common this winter. Even more interesting is the one redpoll that was a little bigger, plumper and tremendously whiter; photographs may be able to confirm that this paler individual is the much rarer hoary redpoll. Stay tuned for more information about this next week.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard bird hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail email@example.com.
Robert Culbert leads guided birding tours and is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven