Hooked-shaped wanderer is the exact translation of the Latin name for falco peregrinus, the peregrine falcon. The hook shape refers to the falcon’s claws which are formidable weapons. Also known as duck hawk or bullet hawk, this handsome falcon has quite a reputation. Many of us know this hawk because of its hunting prowess. The peregrine falcon is able to snatch birds out of the air and do so after going into a stoop (dive) of in excess of 175 mph. An exhilarating event to witness!
Duck hawks are found on the Vineyard during fall and winter but rarely in the spring months. Others pass through our state on their way to Central and South America for the winter.
Peregrine falcons did not breed in Massachusetts between 1957 and 1980 due to pesticide contamination. DDT caused a drastic reduction in the peregrine falcon population. The pesticide caused thin eggshells and therefore nest failure. After the use of DDT was banned, peregrine falcons made an amazing comeback, although they are not a common hawk. According to Wayne Petersen and Dick Veit in their Birds of Massachusetts, duck hawks were reintroduced to Massachusetts in the 1980s, and by 1989 they were breeding in Boston and Springfield. They were removed from the federal endangered list in 1999.
Biologists that have studied peregrine falcons have come to the conclusion that they probably mate for life. To choose a mate, the male puts on quite a show. It flies in high circles and then makes spectacular dives and then returns to executing high circles. If a mate is already chosen, the male will do the same flight to advertise its territory. The site chosen for the nest is usually on high cliffs or on edges of structures such as bridges, towers, and high rise buildings. They also will use old nests of large birds in treetops. Once a pair makes or finds a nest, it is frequently used for years. If an existing nest is not used, the peregrine falcons don’t build a nest, but eggs are laid on the ledge or in a shallow scrape.
The female lays between two to six eggs which are white with reddish-brown markings. While the female incubates the eggs, which takes about a month, the male provides food for her. Once the young have hatched, the male now has to provide food for both his mate and the hatchlings. About 40 days later the young fledge and are on their own.
The best place to see peregrine falcons on the Vineyard is off the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah. They choose this area as there is good hunting of migrating birds and wintering sea ducks. What better place to spend the winter than where your food of choice resides?
Take a trip to Aquinnah; you may have the honor of spotting the noble peregrine falcon.
The peregrine falcon show at Gay Head has been fabulous. Lanny McDowell and I, while eating breakfast at the Aquinnah Shop on Oct. 3, watched one snatch a bird out of the air and proceed to eat it on the wing! Buddy Vanderhoop said from his boat he spotted easily a dozen hawks buzzing around the Cliffs Oct. 6. All local birders have reported sighting peregrines daily this week.
Mary Dacey would have had the latest record of a ruby-throated hummingbird for her sighting on Oct. 5, but Nancy Abbott of West Tisbury spotted one the following day. Let’s see if there are any hummingbirds on Island next week!
Rob Bierregaard reports that Penelope, Homer’s half sister from the Vineyard, has decided to reside in Suriname for the winter. Check out the maps on Rob’s Web site.
Allan Keith spotted a late scarlet tanager at Turtle Brook Farm on Sept. 30. Earlier at Aquinnah he spotted two lark sparrows and later with Lanny McDowell and Bob Shriber they spotted bobolinks, dickcissels, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, black-throated blue and green warblers as well as yellow-rumped and prairie warblers. Later Bob Shriber and Allan Keith added clay-colored sparrows from Aquinnah. Luanne Johnson and Nancy Clum joined the men at Aquinnah and added Baltimore orioles, Philadelphia vireo and brown thrashers. At Katama the women added two whimbrels. At Squibnocket Lanny McDowell and Allan Keith racked up nine species of warblers: Magnolia, yellow, yellowthroat, Wilson’s, black and white, northern parula, yellow-rumped black-throated blue and palm. They also had a dark-eyed junco, blue-headed, red-eyed, warbling and Philadelphia vireos and swamp sparrow. Off the Squibnocket beach Allan and Lanny spotted a green-winged teal in with about 30 common eiders.
On Oct. 1 Bob Shriber had Lincoln’s and clay-colored sparrows, indigo buntings, three dickcissels, palm warblers and two sharp-shinned hawks at Aquinnah.
On Oct. 2 Flip Harrington and Tony Rezendes were trying to fish off Gay Head in some sloppy water. The fishing wasn’t great but they did spot a large flock of white-winged scoters and a single sooty shearwater. At Quenames in Chilmark the same day I had blackpoll warblers, six eastern phoebes, eight eastern bluebirds and a yellow-rumped warbler.
On Oct. 3 I joined Lanny McDowell and Allan Keith at Squibnocket and we had four peregrine falcons, both blue-headed and red-eyed vireos, ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, common yellowthroats and a flock of American widgeons and gadwalls. We also flushed a green-winged teal and a single black duck. We had a mystery warbler that I think was a Connecticut warbler . . . we will never know.
On Oct. 4 Al Sgroi birded the Farm Institute at Katama and spotted a Wilson’s snipe along the road as well as two Cooper’s hawks and numbers of black-bellied plovers. At Felix Neck he spotted yellow-rumped, blackpoll and pine warblers and 20 eastern bluebirds. There were almost more birders at Gay Head on Oct. 4 than there were birds. Matt Pelikan graced our presence as did Laurie Walker and Katharine Colon. Matt had heard a screech owl at his Oak Bluffs house early that morning. When he returned home he found three blue grosbeaks feeding on the flowers in his yard. He picked up Lincoln’s and grasshopper sparrows, three house wrens, a Tennessee and four Wilson’s warblers before the rest of us arrived. Allan Keith was the next to arrive and Matt and Allan spotted a whimbrel. Then Lanny arrived and the three men saw a Nashville warbler. Other birds the whole group spotted included white-throated sparrow, four peregrines and a flock of 60 blue jays. Later Lanny and I spotted a turkey vulture. Martha Moore spotted a young turkey vulture at Long Point on Oct. 7 — wonder where that youngster was born.
Laurie Walker and Katharine Colon continued on to the Gay Head moraine where they spotted magnolia, blackpoll and black-throated green warblers, a yellow-bellied sapsucker and a veery. They also had a flock of very noisy common grackles pass through the woods at the moraine.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-627-4922 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan B. Whiting is co-author of Vineyard Birds and newly published Vineyard Bird II and led bird tours for Osprey Tours for 30 years to Central and South America.