There is a reason why many birds migrate south for the winter! Food can be scarce, either because of the cold temperatures or because the food is hidden underneath a foot of snow. Nevertheless, some species will stay here despite the potential scarcity of food. Barn owls are year-round residents on the Island. They are prolific breeders, nesting and fledging young twice a year. But cold temperatures and snow cover cause some of the owls to die, especially recently fledged young that have not yet perfected their hunting techniques. Extended arctic cold snaps can do them in, as can snow cover that conceals the activity of the small mammals they eat. So given the cold wintry weather of early January, it is natural that dead barn owls have been reported from numerous places around the Island.
Ice cover on our freshwater and saltwater ponds can also cause problems for overwintering birds. Limited open water concentrates ducks into smaller spaces, like the maybe 500 ducks that were limited to the upper reaches of Tisbury Great Pond on the Christmas Bird Count because that was the only open water in the area. Or the ice may force them out into the ocean; goldeneye and bufflehead seem to frequent the ocean more when ice covers their usual coastal pond habitats. These ducks may also migrate further south to get away from the ice.
Ice on these ponds can also make it difficult for waterbirds to get airborne. Ken Magnuson and Lanny McDowell observed a red-throated loon that could not take off from the iced surface of Tisbury Great Pond. And Matt Pelikan recently observed a common loon that was foraging in a small patch of water in mostly frozen Lake Tashmoo; the small patch of water may not have been large enough for it to take off from. These birds will likely survive as they can scramble over the ice and beaches to the open waters of the Sound and/or the ocean.
Susie Bowman observed a palm warbler near her West Tisbury home on Dec. 30. This species is never abundant in the winter, but I believe they are always present at this time of the year. We did not find one during the recent Christmas Bird Count, despite intensive searching by several teams. Unfortunately, we can not include this sighting in our results as it was not observed within three days of the count.
On Jan. 5, Ken Magnuson and Lanny McDowell observed purple sandpipers and long-tailed ducks in Menemsha Harbor. Lanny also observed a yellow-bellied sapsucker tending the holes it had drilled into a maple tree. These sap holes are easily recognized as they are less than one-eighth of an inch in diameter in neat horizontal rows around a tree trunk. The sapsucker, as its name suggests, gets some of its food by drinking the sap that flows out of these holes. Other species will also take advantage of this sweet food (maple syrup, anyone?), and he observed a black-capped chickadee snatching some of the sap.
Kathy and Jeff Verner found a dead red-throated loon at South Beach on Jan. 8.
On Jan. 9, Ken Magnuson found the short-eared owl that has been at Quansoo all month, a rare sighting as this species has virtually disappeared from all of New England. He also photographed an adult sharp-shinned hawk perched on the support brackets of his bird feeder – the photos clearly show the long square-tipped tail that is one of the characteristic field marks identifying this species.
Lori Robinson Fisher took several photographs of a small hawk in her yard, which she thought might be a broad-winged hawk — one of her photos showed a fan-shaped buteo-like tail. While I got a good look at an adult broad-winged hawk about a month ago, online data from ebird suggests that it was the only broad-winged hawk anywhere in the north. Remember that an accipiter can have a fan-shaped tail as it twists and turns while flying through the woodlands. When perched, this bird showed the typical long narrow tail of an accipiter, although a discussion followed about whether it was a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk.
Snowy owls are still in the news. Kathy and Jeff Verner found and photographed the Katama Airpark snowy owl on Jan. 9. On Jan. 12, Jeff Bernier observed two different snowies at the Farm Institute, and William Waterway photographed the West Basin snowy. John Nelson reports that two of the six snowy owls he observed on Cape Pogue were having an aerial battle at the cedars on Cape Pogue; that must have been quite a spectacle!
Virginia Jones spotted a peregrine falcon near the Keith’s farm in Chilmark.
Heidi Dietterich installed a heated bird bath on the afternoon of Jan. 9; the open water immediately attracted eastern bluebirds into her yard.
Tom Rivers reports a brown creeper at his Tea Lane home on Jan. 10. He also recently had four species of woodpeckers at his feeders: flicker, downy, hairy and red-bellied.
Pam and Rob Davey had three red-winged blackbirds at their feeder on Jan. 11 with the thought that they might be early migrants, but Dave Small reported that it is probably the same three that were seen in Oak Bluffs during the bird count. Although you never know whether the strong southerly winds we have been having will bring back early migrants, the blackbirds probably will not return until February.
On Jan. 12, John Nelson observed 42 brant in Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs, a flock of at least 150 greater scaup at the south end of Sengekontacket Pond, a merlin at the Farm Institute and seven northern gannets at Squash Meadow Shoals east of Oak Bluffs Harbor.
Nelson Smith reports cedar waxwings and robins at both Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and his office in West Tisbury on Jan. 13. Anne Lemenager also observed these species in the treetops along the trail between Farm Pond and Oak Bluffs School.
Finally, I went to the Head of the Lagoon on Jan. 14, and found five black-crowned night herons, one great blue heron, one American coot and a Eurasion wigeon in with all the usual mallard, black duck, American wigeon and hooded mergansers. These ducks have been present at least since late December.
There are lots of birds around, so please get out looking for them and be sure to report your bird sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Culbert leads guided birding tours and is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.