Managing our expectations has a lot to do with birding. For birders at the bottom of the expertise hierarchy to those at the top, our expectations can help us see a greater variety of birds, or they can hobble our judgment with misleading information. Finding the right border between caution and optimism is one of the intriguing balancing acts of birding, especially when there is some competition in the air, which, let’s face it, can be part of the fun. Read about the annual World Series of Birding in New Jersey, The Great Texas Birding Classic, or watch the movie, The Big Year. Serious fun! What we are talking about is that it’s fun to make the first correct identification of a difficult bird. It’s less fun when it turns out you are dead wrong.
Familiarity with the most likely local species often sets the scene for recognizing the unusual. Luckily, the familiar is what is typically encountered, so birders are exposed to the seasonal regulars whether they plan it or not. Then it helps to have a dogged determination to consume and process as much detail as you can stand to be confident of a more rare variety when it shows up. This approach is just as valid for noting an unusual sound from a bird, a song, an alarm, a scold or a chip, as it is for the visual clues, especially as spring migrants move through forest habitat and seeing them in the emergent foliage is more and more difficult. If you recognize the songs of residents, it is much more likely you will notice a transient and decide to find out what it is.
On the one hand we can use our expectations to narrow the field when chasing an identification; on the other hand, only drawing on our previous experience limits us. If we always assume the hawk soaring over the Farm Institute fields is a red-tailed, it’s likely we will miss the rough-legged hawk when it shows up some fall. If a line of alcids flying to a winter feeding frenzy off Cape Pogue is probably only razorbills, we may miss the murre in the middle. Is one of those great black-backed gulls a bit smaller and a bit grayer, making it a lesser black-backed? Is there a white-winged gull in with the herring gulls at the scallop dump? Is there a redhead or canvasback mixed in with all the scaup in a big raft of diving ducks wintering on Tisbury Great Pond?
Sometimes identification dead-ends arise because of a bird’s name. Indigo buntings and blue grosbeaks are a rich blue, except when they are not, and then they are a nondescript cinnamon brown. Scarlet tanagers are scarlet and black, except that the females are all a leafy green. If you’re looking for the red belly on a red-bellied woodpecker to show up the way the red head shows on a red-headed woodpecker, you’re in trouble from the get-go.
Other times birders with a troubling identification challenge have too much information at their fingertips. Whether it’s a phone app or a reference book that is being consulted, being able to initially discard some of the possibilities because of range or rarity can be a useful starting point. Sometimes enthusiasm trumps reality when an observer looks only at the pictures and misses the information on geographical distribution. Of course we all live for the moment when a vagrant has exceeded its known range and ends up here on the Vineyard, going about its business as usual, while birders are frantically texting each other and filing GPS locations.
While many Vineyarders interested in birds and birding are probably by now aware of the Martha’s Vineyard bird alert group on Facebook, some may not be, and Gazette readers off-Island may not have heard of it yet. The site is rich with local avian news and timely photographs abound. After more than a year of online presence, the group has a current membership of over 175. As an indicator of birding interest on the Vineyard, this is a pretty amazing number, since no membership expansion has been actively sought via social media tactics. The group description reads, in par: “This Facebook group for local bird alerts encourages any member to post or read about recent sightings of interest on or nearby Martha’s Vineyard — unusual species, high numbers, interesting behavior, early arrivals or late departures, etc.”
There is one other Facebook group for birders on the Vineyard, which is less chatty, more focused and more filtered: the Vineyard Rare Bird Alert, which provides a one-page review of the latest unusual sightings.
To join either group, type in the name of the group in the search field at the top of a Facebook page and then, once at the group page, request to become a member at the upper right. Another way to join is to ask a Facebook friend who is already a member to sign you up.
Ken Magnuson scored an upland sandpiper at the Farm Institute on April 17 and shot some stellar portraits of this regular but elusive migrant.
After reading last week’s story about an unfortunate brown thrasher arrival, Gretchen Regan from Edgartown reports that she has had a single thrasher foraging beneath her backyard feeder since mid-February.
Sunday, April 21, was a pretty active day for Island birders:
This writer and Allan Keith scoured Norton Point, finding some remnant greater scaup, four pairs of American oystercatchers and both dunlin and black-bellied plovers numbering between 70 and 80, some individuals of each species, a few of each showing evidence of emerging breeding plumage (black feathering). The choicest find was a first-year lesser black-backed gull feeding in the surf line with immature herring gulls. Noticeably absent were piping plovers, although there is plenty of activity elsewhere on the Vineyard’s beaches.
Wendy Elsner is Felix Neck’s new Coastal Waterbird and Citizen Science Coordinator. She was with Constance Alexander at Tashmoo and they found a snowy egret. They also tallied eight piping plovers. An earlier snowy egret had been seen back on April 17 by Morgan Hodgson and Bill Lake from near Red Beach in Aquinnah, along with a horned lark roadside at West Basin. They also spotted an indigo bunting at Nat’s Farm field, West Tisbury.
Albert Fischer was treated to an American kestrel over the Keith Farm pastures up in Chilmark. Linda Mariano found two kestrels and one great egret on Chappy, as well as her first eastern towhee of the season out at Wasque. Many eastern towhees arrived rather abruptly over the weekend and the males are singing, as reported by Linda on Chappy, Nelson Smith with two at Sepiessa, Matt Pelikan at the Hoft Farm off Lambert’s Cove Road and Steve Parachini at Dodgers Hole Road. Eastern phoebes and brown creepers are also getting people’s attention as the song traffic amps up.
Dr. Jay Pitochelli, an Aquinnah visitor from New Hampshire, reported winter species lingering at the Gay Head Cliffs: harlequin ducks, great cormorants and red-throated loons. New arrivals seen were barn swallow and laughing gull, a warm-season gull which has not been reported otherwise.
On April 22 Jeff Bernier took a series of photographs depicting the “prey transfer” behavior of northern harriers, where the “gray ghost” male hands off a prey item, often a rodent or a snake, to a nesting female, which flies up to meet him for a mid-air exchange. If you happen to see both harrier genders when flying, be alert for an exchange. It can happen quickly.
There are still white-winged crossbills around, plus dark-eyed juncos and many red-breasted nuthatches that have not yet initiated the move north. All the resident swallows are on-Island: tree, barn, bank, northern rough-winged swallow, but no chimney swifts yet.
The Biodiversity Works team is monitoring belted kingfisher nest burrows again this year and requests that anyone walking the beaches who sees an active nest to please report the details to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Report bird sightings to the bird hotline at 508-645-2913 or email email@example.com.
Lanny McDowell is an artist and photographer living in Vineyard Haven, with a website at lannymcdowellart.com.