Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary invites the public to join them at Felix Neck for a Full Moon Walk between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30 and then gather inside to meet the wildlife photographers who contributed to the 2010 Felix Neck Wildlife Calendar.

Laurie Walker’s fleeting glimpse of a great horned owl last week opened a can of worms. Tom Rivers called to say that he and Barbara spotted a great horned owl in their Tea Lane Chilmark yard on Nov. 16. Tom also reminded me that Otis Burt found a great horned owl in their yard at their old home at Gaymark after a storm. Allan Keith reminded me that Guy Emerson had reported this large owl in Chilmark in the 1950s and also that Nell Howell had several sightings in Gay Head. Now here comes the rub. None of these sightings were “officially” verified by a photo or second observer. Neither Gus Ben David nor I would accept these sightings but Allan Keith and Tom Rivers would. This is why the MARC (Massachusetts Avian Records Committee) was developed. The MARC use a set of criteria which must be met to make a sighting official.

Great horned owls have an interesting history on Martha’s Vineyard. A bird watcher since my teenage years, it was not until I had finished college in the early 1970s that I became aware of the Martha’s Vineyard checklist. The checklist was compiled by the late R.M. Sargent of Chilmark and New Jersey. Dick Sargent marked each bird species, indicating whether it was common, uncommon, rare or accidental. The great horned owl during that era was classified as accidental — meaning there were very few records and no nesting pairs on the Vineyard.

Great horned and long-eared owls (which used to nest on the Island) can be a challenge to differentiate at dawn or dusk in flight. The old records of great horned owls were after storms. Other visits by great horned owls would occur after the breeding season. There is a sizeable population of this large owl in Falmouth and on the Cape. Young owlets might take off to explore and pay a visit to the Vineyard, but finding no other owl of the same species, soon return to the “America” to find a mate.

The first officially verified great horned owl was recorded by Gus Ben David and Arnold Brown on Jan. 28, 1993 at the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary. This bird was probably calling to Gus Ben David’s owl Hoot. The first pair of great horned owls was found nesting and photographed by Julian Robinson in the Oyster-Watcha Pond area in 1996. In 2007 a pair was found nesting in Pilot Hill and another on Chappaquiddick. One wonders if these pairs are offspring of the original Oyster-Watcha pair. Now we have at least three pairs of these huge owls nesting here, one on Chappaquiddick, one in Tisbury and one in Edgartown. Chances are there will be more.

This issue points out the importance of using photography or the second opinion of an experienced birder as a method of verifying the identification of a bird species. Both great horned owls and long-eared owl have ear tufts. Did the owl you saw have a white chin?

Bird Sightings

I understand that at the end of the graveside service on Abel’s Hill for Mary Larsen on Jan. 23, a merlin flew overhead. The merlin’s spirit is very similar to Mary’s. We will miss Mary and I, for one, will think of her when I spot my next merlin.

Meg Orlando spotted a northern mockingbird while walking in Blacksmith Valley, Chilmark on Jan. 16.

Bill Jones took time off from his golf game to e-mail me. It seems that Bill experienced a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds at the 11th hole at Farm Neck Golf Course. He counted over 300 American crows going to roost just before sunset.

Scott Stephens counted four black-crowned night herons at roost by the Tiasquam River in West Tisbury.

Tom Rivers called to say there were two snow geese in with the Canada geese in Keith’s Field in Chilmark on Jan. 20. The same day Gus Ben David reported a pine warbler at his feeder, the first of this winter.

On Jan. 26 a dovekie was found by Roy Riley and Susie Middleton. They had gone for a walk in Menemsha Hills and when they pulled into the parking lot there was a strange black and white bird on the ground. It seemed exhausted, but unharmed. Roy and Suzie took the bird to the World of Reptiles and Birds. Gus Ben David determined it was a dovekie. Dovekies, like most oceanic birds, cannot walk on land. Therefore if a pelagic species such as the dovekie lands on terra firma they are unable to gain enough momentum with their weak legs to fly. Gus will have released the dovekie on the water by the time this column is printed and watched the thankful bird swim and eventually fly off. The dovekie no doubt thanks Ron and Susie. It is interesting to hear that Allan Keith and Matt Pelikan went out birding on Jan. 27 and discovered a dovekie at the mouth of Menemsha harbor. I called Gus Ben David to find out if he had released Roy and Susie’s dovekie in Menemsha. He had not. That dovekie was released in Sengekontacket Pond! There obviously were dovekies brought in by the last blow. Allan and Matt also birded Aquinnah and counted 100-plus razorbills. Allan commented that although there are scoters and eiders offshore, they are many fewer than earlier this year or in previous winters.


Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-627-4922 or e-mail to birds@mvgazette.com.

Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds 2. Visit her Web site at vineyardbird2.com.