Last week one of the Vineyard’s many wintering snowy owls was found dead at Harthaven. Dick Jennings alerted Rob Bierregaard as the bird was originally thought to be an osprey. Dick reported that it was not an osprey. He said that the owl had a GPS transmitter and someone would be looking for it. He took the bird to Gus Ben David who then sent it to Tufts University veterinary center to determine the cause of death. Gus also got in touch with Norman Smith, who has been working with snowy owls for years. Norman has been capturing snowy owls at Logan Airport so that the owls would be out of harm’s way and airplanes would not be damaged. He fits them with GPS tranmitters. Sandy Neck was one of the Logan Airport owls that he released at Sandy Neck on the Cape early this winter.
The following is the report from Tufts and comments from Norman Smith and Scott Weidensaul about Sandy Neck, the young female snowy owl found at Harthaven:
“The necropsy at Tufts showed no trauma except for a minor deep bruise in her left pectoral, no food in the proventriculus (stomach) or gizzard, and no signs of disease or unusual parasites. As Gus (Ben David) noted, she was in otherwise excellent condition – great muscle mass and fat deposits. Nor was there any water in the respiratory system. Mark Pokras (a veterinarian and professor at Tufts) said if he had to guess, she got swamped, swam to shore and went down from hypothermia – but also couldn’t rule out drowning.”
“Interestingly, the tracking data shows she was hunkered down for many hours Friday afternoon along the beach between Sengekontacket Pond and the ocean, then around 5 a.m. Saturday headed north over the bay. It looks like by 5:40 a.m. she was in the water, and I assume the movement after that – south a bit, up and around the top of the Island and then back – reflects tide and current, not the owl. So she might not have drowned, but simply died of hypothermia in the water. Looks like she came ashore about 8:30 p.m. on Saturday.” And was found the next day.
Norman Smith commented that since Sandy Neck was on the breakwater on Sylvia State Beach during the blizzard, it was possible that an especially large wave could have caught her off guard. No one will ever know for sure how she died. The transmitter from Sandy Neck is still functioning and it is hoped that it will be fitted to another snowy owl as there are many still around. Perhaps the next Logan Airport snowy owl could be released on the Vineyard.
Rob Bierregaard and Dick Jennings have told us over and over that first year birds, whether be ospreys or owls, have a good deal to learn in their first year and weather is one of the hardest natural hazards to deal with.
It was nice to hear that the second snowy owl that has been frequenting Sylvia State Beach was seen alive and well on March 31 by Randy Rynd. Randy emailed that the owl was hunkered down in the dune grass in the lee of the dunes trying to stay out of the gale of wind that was still blowing.
Along with Flip Harrington and Lanny McDowell, I found a snowy owl sitting on a log behind the dunes at Quansoo in Chilmark on April 2. Rosemary Knowlton Hildreth photographed a snowy owl at Quansoo in West Tisbury on April 6. Lanny McDowell spotted a snowy owl at Black Point in Chilmark on April 7.
Michael Viera, the 13-year-old grandson of Joyce and Ben Viera, photographed a snowy owl in flight at Sylvia State Beach on April 7. Lori Calio took a photo of the Sylvia State Beach snowy owl on April 7 and then went to Tisbury Great Pond and spotted another snowy owl at Quansoo.
A rare bird for the Island was found at the Rod and Gun Club on April 2. A worker at the club spotted a large owl and called Felix Neck. Philip Hunsiker rushed over and took a photo of what turned out to be a long-eared owl. Although this owl species used to nest on Abel’s Hill and at the State Forest, those birds are no longer present. It is unusual to see this nocturnal bird during the day, so one would suspect it may be a stressed bird that was blown in by the blizzard.
On March 27 Ann Richards saw and photographed two female and two male eastern bluebirds at her feeder off Christiantown Road in West Tisbury. Later that day she saw a brown creeper investigating a nearby beech tree.
Susan Straight reported that “the female osprey returned to the osprey pole on Quitsa Pond April 1 and that the pair has been busy patching up their nest with branches and nylon roping.”
Allen D. Slater Jr emailed that the osprey is back on the pole on Litchfield Rd, Chappaquiddick as of April 2 and figures that was about the same day that the osprey arrived last spring. Allen added that he saw an American oystercatcher in Caleb’s Pond on April 4.
Sharon Simonin sent great photos of ospreys from the Oak Bluff Beach Club on April 6, one being chased by a gull! The same day Constance Alexander spotted one osprey at the Tashmoo channel pole and another by the west pole. Along the shore Constance spotted two American oystercatchers and mentioned there were still a large number of common eiders in Vineyard Sound.
Jeff Bernier took photographs of four American oystercatchers he took at Little Beach on April 3. His photos were so clear that the band numbers could be easily seen. The next day Jeff photographed six American oystercatchers at Norton Point. He was able to photograph one pair mating!
On April 2 and 3 there was a migratory movement of eastern phoebes. Gus Ben David spotted an eastern phoebe in his yard in Oak Bluffs on April 2. Lanny McDowell spotted four phoebes at Cranberry Acres off Lambert’s Cove Road and Matt Pelikan heard a phoebe singing outside his office near Cranberry Acres the same day.
Matt Pelikan watched four ospreys circling over Brush cove in Oak Bluffs on April 4. They were making quite a racket and Matt wasn’t sure whether the communication was peaceful greetings, arguments over nest sites or partners.
Matt Pelikan announced that the female common grackles have returned to his Oak Bluffs yard as of April 4. Gus Ben David reported a flock of common grackles appeared in his Oak Bluffs yard on April 2. Flip Harrington and I had our first male common grackle arrive at our Quenames feeder on April 2. We also had a white-throated sparrow arrive on April 2, leave that day, and reappear again on April 6.
On April 6 Happy and Steve Spongberg were with John Flender and a friend of his from Cambridge at Spring Point Beach when they saw three piping plovers and one purple sandpiper. Joe Jims reported a flock of swallows over the Hoft Farm on April 6.
Gus Ben David reported that a pine warbler arrived in his yard on April 7. Sally Williams reported a pine warbler twice at her home near Crystal Lake in Oak Bluffs on both April 6 and 7. Lanny McDowell had his first of the year chipping sparrow at his Tashmoo feeder on April 7.
Chris Carroll sent a photo of a leucistic downy woodpecker that has been visiting his house near Edgartown Great Pond all winter. Yet another incidence of leucistic birds on the Vineyard!
Finally from Rob Bierregaard there is an update on his website showing that all the ospreys with transmitters are on the move. Vineyard birds are on their way, DJ is already in Rhode Island, Snowy is in Florida, and Belle is on her way out of Cuba. Check the website for the latest www.ospreytrax.com.
Please report your bird sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan B. Whiting is the co-author of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her website is www.vineyardbirds2.com.