This week’s most exciting sightings are Sally Anderson’s reports of pine siskins on Nov. 4 and 8 and common redpolls observed in Aquinnah on Nov. 12. To have these northern finches around this early, and widespread across Massachusetts, means that they may be relatively common this winter. These finches only migrate this far south when food is scarce in their northern forest homelands. Last winter the seeds they eat were abundant, yet the birds were virtually absent in New England.
Please keep your eyes out for one of my favorite northern finches, the evening grosbeak. Flocks of these large yellow finches with huge beaks may be seen in the treetops and at feeders – they love sunflower seeds and can be rather gluttonous. Grosbeaks often give away their presence by their distinctive call, a low dry rattling thirrr (of course the verbal description does not do this call any justice, but it gives an idea of what the bird sounds like). Their populations are declining nationwide, and sightings of them are now quite unusual on the Vineyard.
Bird feeders are always of interest. I have had my bird feeders out for six weeks now, and so far I have had the usual suspects. Most notable are the abundant black-capped chickadees, more than I have ever had before. Red-breasted nuthatches have also been abundant, and although many observers are finding them across the Island, there seem to be fewer than there were in mid-October. On Monday my first American goldfinches, six of them, appeared – in past years they have always been present at my feeder, so where have they been? Also on Monday my first dark-eyed junco appeared, and Gus Ben David reports that his juncos showed up about a week ago, and that a few purple finches have been coming to his feeders since Saturday.
Sally Anderson has seen lots of interesting birds this week. Four species of warblers (palm, pine, prairie and orange-crowned) and a blue-headed vireo top the list. But she and Allan Keith also found six species of sparrows at Aquinnah on Oct. 5: clay-colored, vesper, savannah, field, chipping and song sparrows.
Numerous observers called the bird hot line to report flocks of snow buntings near the cliffs in Aquinnah on Nov. 12.
The ducks are starting to show up, too. The numbers of common eiders and all three species of scoters are building up to their winter abundance. The best places to see large numbers of these ducks is from the eastern shoreline of Chappaquiddick, Squibnocket Beach or the cliffs in Aquinnah. The large rafts of these stocky sea ducks, 5,000 or 10,000 or more, is an amazing sight, especially now with the male eiders molting into their striking black and white plumage.
The ducks that live on our coastal ponds are also appearing. Hooded mergansers have been reported on Crystal Lake, Farm Pond, and Squibnocket Pond. Gus Ben David reports that bufflehead and common goldeneyes are showing up — he found them on Chappaquiddick ponds on Nov. 11. Sally Anderson reports that on Nov. 5 she found ruddy ducks on Squibnocket Pond. And on Nov. 10 I observed a dozen brant mixed in with the Canada geese at their usual location in Oak Bluffs, near the bandstand in Ocean Park.
Larry Hepler reports a short-eared owl coursing over the marshes and fields near Black Point Pond in Chilmark on Nov. 11. He also reports watching a red-tailed hawk swallow a meadow vole whole, without tearing it into mouth-size pieces first. Behavioral observations are so much fun. Red-tails are common but how often do you see them at their dinner table, where they eat lots of mice and voles?
Most of these bird sightings are a sign of the approaching winter, although you certainly would not know it from the numbers of leaves still on the oak trees. Did somebody forget to tell the oaks that it is the middle of November? Suzan Bellincampi reports that the first frost of the season was observed at Felix Neck on Wednesday.
Please remember to leave your bird sightings on the bird line at 508-627-4922.
Robert Culbert is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.