Gay Head or Aquinnah has the Vineyard birders enraptured watching the movement of large numbers of raptors in the last two weeks. To steal the words of Pete Dunne, David Sibley and Clay Sutton from their book Hawks in Flight, bird watchers in Gay Head observed a collection of wind masters (buteos), artful dodgers (accipters), fish hawks (osprey), great foolers (northern harriers), falcons, and big black birds (eagles and vultures) passing over the Vineyard on their way to points south.
The buteo that Vineyard birders are familiar with is the red-tailed hawk. A breeder on the Island, the red-tail or chicken hawk can be seen year-round. The Vineyard breeding population heads south and red-tails from the north spend the winter here hunting mice, rabbits and squirrels.
The accipiters are in my mind the hardest to identify. The Cooper’s hawk and the sharp-shinned hawks are the commonly observed artful dodgers. The Cooper’s has a rounded tail and a bigger head than the square tailed pin-headed sharp-shinned hawk.
The osprey is the Vineyard’s most popular hawk.
Thanks to Gus Ben David and crew building over 100 osprey poles around the Island, the summer population is around sixty pair. These black and white hawks and their offspring move south and it is rare to see fish hawks on the Island between November and March.
My personal favorite is the northern harrier or marsh hawk. A hawk of the wide open spaces, the harrier is the slow flying hawk with a big white rump patch. The vacillating flight of the marsh hawks gives one the impression that you are watching a lazy hawk. Not so as the harrier is a stealthy hunter. The male northern harrier is gray and called the gray ghost, while the female is brown.
The falcons seen around the Island include, from small to large, the American kestrel, the merlin and the peregrine falcon. All these hawks have blade shaped wings and are rapid flyers. The smallest, the kestrel, is a small hawk about the size of a blue jay, with a rufous tail. It spends much of its life hovering over a field looking for grasshoppers to snack on. The next largest, the merlin, is fast, dark and a direct flying machine. The peregrine falcon is about the size of a crow and boasts a dark mustache. It soars more than the merlin and has a longer tail and wings. It is an elegant bird and a fierce hunter.
Of the big black birds the turkey vulture is the most commonly seen. A few of the shorter tailed and winged black vultures are appearing on the Island. The vultures are usually found soaring overhead in kettles (large groups circling with the thermals) and rarely flap their huge fingered wings. The bald eagle, on the other hand, flaps its wings more often, but really looks like a big board with wings.
Take a ride to Aquinnah and enjoy the raptors as they move south for the winter.
Gus Ben David and Constance Hill both had a blackbird experience on Oct. 9. Both people watched as close to 2,000 common grackles flowed through their woods into their backyards and then moved on. Gus spotted the flock at the World of Reptiles and Birds just on the line between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, and Constance off County Road in Oak Bluffs.
Sally Anderson and Laurie Walker tried birding at Gay Head in the afternoon of Oct. 9. Although they spotted many species of sparrow including Savannah, chipping, swamp, white-crowned and white-throated, their best birds were a blue-grey gnatcher and an indigo bunting. They also had sharp-shinned hawks at both Aquinnah and Blacksmith Valley and a merlin at the later location.
Also at Aquinnah, Marianne Durgin gently picked up a golden-crowned kinglet that had been stunned, probably by hitting a window. She set it down nearby and it survived and flew off. The best thing to do with a stunned bird is exactly what Marianne did.
On Oct. 10, Tim and Sheila Baird had a merlin and a Baltimore oriole come through their yard. Everyone is still seeing red-breasted nuthatches at their feeders including Rich Whitten-Stovall in downtown Vineyard Haven, the feeders at Felix Neck and the Bairds.
Back on Sept. 27 Chris Mead spotted some sort of parakeet. The puzzle has been solved. Molly Fischer had a sleep over around the first of October and one of her guests had had love birds as pets and recognized the call. Both Molly and her father Bert have spotted the bird around their Aquinnah home which is not far from Moshup’s trail where Chris first spotted his mystery parakeet. Someone must have lost their pets!
Rob Bierregaard’s latest Vineyard osprey update shows that osprey Homer has moved from the Chesapeake Bay to the Bahamas. Felix has settled down in Panama for the duration. Conomo is in Cuba and Luke is still hanging around Boston — pushing the envelope for late departures for an osprey.
Lanny McDowell and Sally Anderson found several peregrine falcons at Aquinnah on Oct. 12. On Oct. 14 Sally Anderson ventured to the Cliffs around noon and had five peregrine falcons, one of which landed on the back of one of 10 turkey vultures that were circling above the Cliffs. She also had a couple of sharp-shinned hawks and three to five ospreys. Lanny McDowell, Porter Turnbull and Al Sgroi were also at the head on the 14th and they counted 25 sharp-shinned hawks, a peregrine falcon and a Cooper’s hawk. Laurel Walker joined Sally Anderson on the 15th and they watched many sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks and peregrines sailing over Aquinnah.
Lanny McDowell has been at the Cliffs almost daily photographing the raptor race! On Oct. 16 he spotted all three falcon species, four Cooper’s hawks and thirty sharp-shinned hawks!
Bert Fischer has been watching two peregrine falcons for the last two weeks. He spotted a merlin on Oct. 16. In Squibnocket Pond on Oct. 17 Bert spotted six scaup species, three horned grebes and northern gannets offshore.
Out at Katama Kathirn Hines spotted a merlin by the Katama opening, and a northern harrier at Cape Pogue.
Finally David Mash was at Lobsterville and spotted a bird that resembled a prairie chicken. I had seen the same bird the week before and decided it was a young female ring-necked pheasant.
There are still a few lingering passerines being spotted; that will have to wait until next week. Call in your sightings to the bird hotline at 508-627-4922.