It’s a good thing February is a short month, because it’s easily the dullest one in the birding year. With the great ponds mostly or entirely frozen, many of our ducks have had to press farther south. Meanwhile, snow storms and cold snaps have pruned the numbers of songbirds, either through mortality or by pushing these birds, too, farther south. A couple of recent outings ranked among the slowest days of birding I can recall.
Among the Island’s more determined birders are Laurie Walker and Katherine Colon. Taking advantage of the mild weather on Monday, they birded up-Island, turning up a flock of about 15 snow buntings in Aquinnah and a flock of 75 lesser scaup on Menemsha Pond. Steve and Happy Spongberg, accompanied by John Flender, walked and birded at Lobsterville on Sunday. Birding was slow, it sounds like, but the group managed an excellent view, and even some photographs, of a snow bunting. Happy also reports a good number of mergansers (she said common mergs, but we suspect she meant red-breasted, which are much more numerous here, especially on salt water).
The ever-productive Spongberg feeding station in Chilmark produced an oddity last Friday in the form of a leucistic chickadee (a bird with aberrant white feathers). Chickadees are especially prone to this pigmentational glitch, which seems unusually prevalent among Island chickadees just now. From another feeder, Laurie Walker’s in Chilmark, came a report of a half-dozen pine siskins on Tuesday. These small, streaked finches nest in boreal woodlands across North America; like several other northern finches, they engage in unpredictable large-scale movements southward in some years, probably as a result of food shortages or population pressure. Such an “irruption” has been evident in mainland Massachusetts for several weeks now, but only a few siskins have made it to the Vineyard. Numbers may increase, especially if wintry weather continues, but by early spring these birds will have moved back north. In any event, Laurie says this is the first time she has noticed this species at her feeders.
Conspicuously scarce so far this winter, horned grebes have begun increasing in numbers. Two of the best sites for this bird, the shallow water off Eastville Beach and Bend in the Road Beach, have each been hosting a modest, usually dispersed flock. Even scarcer has been the horned grebe’s slightly larger relative, the red-necked grebe. Allan Keith reports a complete absence of this species recently off Squibnocket Point, which is ordinarily a reliable place to find this bird. From an incoming ferry, I spotted one red-necked grebe off the Eastville Beach jetty last Friday; Laurie Walker and Katherine Colon reported what was probably the same individual on Tuesday. Numbers of both grebes are likely to grow.
While both of these species (especially the horned grebe) can be common to abundant around the Vineyard, their numbers are notoriously variable from year to year, and their numbers often wax and wane dramatically in the course of a season. Moreover, the pattern of their movements is enigmatic. From their breeding grounds in interior North America, both species migrate to winter mainly on salt water along both coasts. But some observers suspect that the bulk of their populations make their initial migration far to the south, working northward during midwinter while most other water birds are continuing to move in the opposite direction. To the extent that this pattern is real, it may be a way for these birds, which are truly pitiful in the air, to get as close to their breeding grounds as possible before launching their overland spring migration.
At least one of the immature bald eagles that have been frequenting the Island continues to be reported. I observed one bird from Sepiessa Point on Sunday, as it flew along the shoreline near Quansoo, and Gus Ben David spotted one overhead as he (Gus, that is) was outside the Edgartown pharmacy. Several observers have reported eagles eating geese. Whether the eagles caught the geese or merely scavenged them is not clear, but it seems likely that the frozen ponds have limited access to fish, a bald eagle’s preferred food.
Horned larks and eastern meadowlarks are hanging tough at Katama Farm, the larks preferring bare soil, the meadowlarks lurking in the hay fields. Both species were present on Sunday, but required luck and patience to spot. Robin Bray and David Nash reported a barn owl along Atlantic Drive on Sunday, as well as hooded mergansers and eastern bluebirds.
Despite the slow birding and the storm we experienced midweek, there have been hints of better things ahead. Temperatures flirted with 50 degrees early this week, house finches have begun singing, and in less than six weeks we can expect the first returning osprey. So don’t despair.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-627-4922 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.