Webster’s Dictionary defines the term harbinger as “a person or thing that comes before to announce or give indication of what is to follow.” If someone had either the time or inclination to search the various newspapers of this country, they would be hard-pressed to find any publication that uses the term harbinger more than the Vineyard Gazette in late winter and early spring — referring, of course, to the magical harbingers of spring.
Indeed, there is likely no other community that exults in the harbingers of spring as Martha’s Vineyard does. The term here is as common as sand on the beach. And we certainly have our fair share of them, from the song of the pinkletinks to the return snow drop flowers along Island trails to the running of the herring.
The reopening of the Flying Horses Carousel on Easter Weekend has become a popular harbinger of spring, as has the reopening of Jimmy Seas and Sandy’s Fish and Chips and Lola’s Southern Seafood. In fact, seasonal business deserves its own subcategory of springtime harbingers; some people mark the change in seasons by the reopening of The Lampost or Backdoor Donuts or the many ice cream shops around the Island.
There are some less welcome harbingers: the return of traffic cops and purple parking tickets stuck on wind shields, traffic jams at the blinker intersection and Triangle, roving gangs of amateur moped riders, tick bites and fist fights in Island bars.
But for every misfortune there are many happy harbingers such as the blooming of Island flora — the return of forsythia blossoms and apple blossoms and horse chestnut and the roadside return of beach plums. And don’t forget the birds. The months of March and April see the return of the bluebirds and red-winged blackbirds and migratory robins, plus the odd, yet wonderful, courtship rituals of the male woodcocks.
And then there is perhaps the most celebrated of all harbingers — the Island’s designated sultan of spring — the majestic osprey, those great hawks who return from faraway lands in South America on ocean breezes to signal that winter is over, the weather is changing and the world will be green again.
This year saw the earliest recorded spring appearance of an osprey on the Vineyard, when a pair was spotted fishing Brine’s Pond on Chappaquiddick on March 9. The prior record was set on March 14, 2002.
In some other communities, less respectful of the harbinger tradition, the return of the first ospreys might go unnoticed. But here on the Vineyard, their return is chronicled in the Gazette’s bird columns and becomes hot news trickling from one end of the Island to the other.
Here on the Vineyard, the return of the osprey is cause for celebration, literally.
This weekend at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, a homecoming party will be held for the celebrated birds during the 15th annual Osprey Festival. The festival will feature food, music, games, face painting, fish printing, and numerous nature walks and educational talks.
The festival is scheduled for Sunday between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
There is perhaps no better place to celebrate the return of the bird than the Vineyard, where as recently as 1971 there were only two pairs of nesting ospreys left. Now there are more than 150 nesting poles across the Island, and officials estimate there may now be as many as 100 nesting pairs.
According to Gus Ben David, former director of Felix Neck, the osprey is a true Vineyard success story.
“Thirty years ago they were all but gone, and now they are not only thriving, but the focus of so much attention and affection. They have become a real icon for the Island; they personify optimism and hope,” he said.
The birds have been saved largely by the efforts of Mr. Ben David, who partnered with the local electric company to erect nesting poles on the Island from Chappadquiddick to Aquinnah. The species, who hover 50 to 150 feet above the water and dive feet-first for fish, are known as indicators of habitat destruction, dwindling fish populations and the general health of the environment.
They also are one of the few migratory bird species who feed exclusively on fish. “They are amazing birds, they are some of the best fishermen you will ever find,” Mr. Ben David said.
Because of his role in preserving the bird as well as starting the osprey festival, Mr. Ben David is usually the first one people call when they spot the birds in late winter or early spring. He said people genuinely get excited about their return, as if they were seeing an old friend.
“You can hear it in your voice, this kind of childlike excitement. I think their return does signal the change in seasons . . . it means everything is about to change,” he said.
Suzan Bellincampi, current director of Felix Neck, agreed. “People love the woodcocks and pinkletinks, but the return of the osprey is always the big thing,” she said. “I think Vineyarders in general are more aware of their natural surroundings. Almost instinctively they look for things like the return of the osprey around this time each year.”