Northern bobwhites are about as tall as robins, but are considerably chunkier. They are also called quail, and they prefer a combination of shrubs and grass, especially hedgerows in agricultural fields. These ground-nesting birds are now scarce, although they were abundant year-round residents as recently as the 1980s. Numerous reasons may explain the current scarcity of these birds.
The super-abundance of skunks and raccoons is one of the more frequently offered explanations: these two predators are thought so abundant that they eat all the quail eggs and chicks every year. Both predators were either absent or extremely scarce prior to the early 1960s, but then their populations boomed. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the Island hosted higher densities of skunks than anywhere else in New England. Quail populations plummeted. Yet quail have always co-existed with these predators over in America.
Another possible explanation for their low population is habitat loss. Two hundred years ago most of the Vineyard was one big sheep pasture, with lots of grass and shrubs — ideal quail habitat. Now much of the Island is not good habitat because of the prevalence of trees. But most of this habitat change took place well before the relatively recent quail population crash, and there still is a fair amount of what looks to be suitable habitat left. There just are not any quail there.
One less frequently mentioned explanation is that nobody is releasing quail on the Island. Such bolstering of our local populations was a regular component of game management by the state and private hunting clubs through much of the 1900s. Ring-necked pheasants are native to Asia but were introduced many years ago. Neither species is released much anymore, and now pheasants are quite scarce too.
Management can help make the native bobwhite more abundant. The skunk population crashed a few years ago, so predation may be reduced, and there is plenty of suitable habitat left on the Vineyard. Restocking these birds into this suitable habitat could give the population a strong boost. It may be necessary to provide feed to help them survive the winter. Maybe then the clearly whistled bob-bob-white will once again be a common sound on the Island.
Aldo Leopold, perhaps the first professional wildlife manager, proposed this management strategy in the 1930s. It is just as appropriate today. He is best known for writing A Sand County Almanac, which is an environmental classic. He died 60 years ago, on April 21, 1948, but his writing is just as relevant today as it was then.
Possibly the best sighting of the month belongs to Ebba Hierta, who observed an adult broad-winged hawk for about 20 minutes near her home off Old County Road in West Tisbury. First the bird was perched and then it flew; the buteo shape, brown chest, black-and-white-striped tail, and its pale wings with a dark border were all clearly visible. Broad-wings are uncommon on the Island and they usually are found in late April and May, so this April 6 sighting is unusually early.
Another unusual hawk is the goshawk sighted by Allan Keith near his house on April 5. In the past week his farm has also hosted four wood ducks, one lesser scaup, two blue-winged teal, one yellow-bellied sapsucker and barn swallows. The latter species is a first for the season and was observed on April 15. On April 10 he drove the Chappaquiddick beaches; his highlights include a pair of horned larks, 18 American oystercatchers and one piping plover.
Also on the hawk front, Peter Shay reports a migrating flock of 50 osprey circling overhead off Alpine avenue in Oak Bluffs on April 13. What a sight that was as they circled higher and higher until they disappeared into the clouds.
I observed my first eastern phoebe of the year on April 8 at my house in Vineyard Haven.
Happy Spongberg reports two tufted titmice returned to her feeder on April 9, after being absent for the winter. She commented that the sighting really perked up what was an otherwise gray day. She also reports a flock of long-tailed ducks off West Chop and two juvenile black-crowned night-herons at Look’s Pond on April 14.
Suzie Bowman observed three great egrets in the marshes at Felix Neck after the osprey festival on April 13. I observed what may or may not be one of those great egrets on April 15, this time in the salt marsh on the Edgartown side of State Beach. It was feeding in the tidal ditch and only its head was visible above the marsh grass.
Birds were spotted by a variety of birders on April 15. Suzie Bowman spotted a belted kingfisher and a greater yellowlegs at the Lagoon Pond near Skiff Avenue in Vineyard Haven. Joanie Ames reports lots of dark-eyed juncos at her feeder — probably migrants since she has not had this many at her feeder all winter. Ms. Ames also reports a pair of flickers feeding in her yard and a flock of 50 northern gannets swimming around on Lucas Shoals. And I heard and observed a northern oriole in my yard.
Now that we are finally getting some warmer weather, we all need to remember to go out and enjoy it. Be sure to pay attention to the birds and report your sightings on the bird hot line at 508-627-4922.
Robert Culbert is an ecological consultant and bird tour leader who lives in Vineyard Haven.