There are all manner of firsts, first steps, first love, first kiss and, for birders, a first sighting of a particular bird species. Known as a “lifer,” or life bird, the view of a species which had escaped you previously or is in a new habitat is exciting. A fair percentage of bird-watchers keep life lists which contain all the birds they have seen, where they saw them and when. Other birders just sense when they are seeing a bird for the first time.

Sue Silva and I grew up across Tisbury Great Pond from each other. She would come down to a point across the pond and signal me if there was something going on or there was a message for the family. We had no phone in those days. I would row over and join in the activity or get the message. Sue went on to be an artist, gardener and flower arranger par excellence. We both had the opportunity to grow up in beautiful natural habitats that boasted a good array of wild flowers and birds. Sue knew the flowers and I knew the birds, although we both knew some of each other’s specialties.

On Jan. 23 Sue Silva was walking on her property on the east side of Tisbury Great Pond when an adult bald eagle “flew out of the pine trees on my right and circled low around me.” Sue e-mailed me that this was her first sighting of an adult bald eagle. Approximately 2,000 miles to the south, Flip Harrington and I were attending the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Titusville, Fla. One of the field trips we joined was called the Gull Fly-in, which occurs from about 3:30 p.m. until dark each evening at Daytona Beach Shores. This location is famous as it attracts a plethora of gull species, some of which are accidentals (not normally found there). We were lucky enough to see a Thayer’s gull, which is a gull that normally winters on the West Coast of the United States and breeds in the high Arctic. This was a lifer for me and Flip. So the Sues that lived across the pond from each other had life birds at the same time.

There are also first-time-in-a-long-time sightings. On Sunday, Jan. 30, Tom Engley went for a walk on the beach near Oyster Watcha. In Paqua Pond there was water kept open by a pair of mute swans. There were two dozen black ducks on the ice with their heads down. Tom e-mailed: “I crawled on the beach to get a good view (not an easy task). I got about 200 feet from them for a great look with the binoculars. They didn’t see me for about 10 minutes, then the blackies spotted me and jumped into the air. What a sight — brought back a flood of memories from my youth of hunting ducks in Lobsterville. Not to worry, I wasn’t a very good shot. We live in a paradise. Not a person in sight.” So true, Tom, and particularly obvious when you have been away for a while to areas which have been over built and overpopulated.

Bird Sightings

Massachusetts Audubon Society’s 2011 Focus on Feeders Weekend is this weekend, Feb. 5 and 6. The idea is for people to report the number and species of birds at their feeders and in their backyards. To participate and find an official Focus on Feeders report form, visit

On Jan. 25 Allan Keith counted three pine warblers at his Chilmark feeder; two returned on Feb. 2 Jenny Abbot has been monitoring her Oak Bluffs feeder and has had both red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks during the last month. Just before the last storm two pairs of cardinals, tufted titmice, dark-eyed juncos, house and goldfinches and mourning doves arrived. Spring birds should be arriving in March. Martha Moore on Middle Point on Tisbury Great Pond, West Tisbury side, watched a northern harrier hunting. The next day she watched a flock of eastern bluebirds feeding on winterberry.

On Jan. 26, Tom Chase reported a red-winged blackbird and common grackle arrived at his Oak Bluffs yard and wondered if they were spring migrants. Matt Pelikan and I agree that they are either birds that have lingered on the Vineyard and come to feeders in bad weather, or those which are still moving south. Saskia Vanderhoop spotted common redpolls at her Aquinnah feeder. She commented that they were very hungry and aggressive.

On Jan. 27, Cathy Minkiewicz had a first for her Indian Hill yard, a ruby-crowned kinglet. Dan Waters had his first yellow-bellied sapsucker for the winter in his yard the same day. The following day, Jan. 28, Richard Steves spotted his first yard yellow-bellied sapsucker in Chilmark.

On Jan. 28, Jon and Kanta Lipsky reported seeing an elegant fox sparrow in their Lambert’s Cove yard. Will Geresy identified an American woodcock near Pimpneymouse Farm on Chappaquiddick. A few American woodcocks stay through the winter.

It was Jan. 29 when Rob Culbert took his neice Taylor Culbert birding on Town Cove in Tisbury Great Pond and counted 22 green-winged teal, a belted kingfisher and a few red-breasted mergansers. On Deep Bottom Cove they spotted a great blue heron and hooded mergansers. Matt Pelikan counted four purple sandpipers on the jetties across from Waban Park in Oak Bluffs.

On Jan. 30 Rob Culbert led a field trip for students in his Adult and Continuing Education Martha’s Vineyard class, Birding Identification Explained. At the Head of the Lagoon there were lots of mallards, American wigeon and buffleheads, and eight black-crowned night herons. At Sarson’s Island there were three black-bellied plovers, three common loons, many common eiders, about a dozen white-winged scoters, buffleheads and red mergansers. Out in the flat calm sound there were lots more common loons, common eiders and white-winged scoters. At Farm Pond there were two hooded mergansers in the open water close to theroad. And in Vineyard Haven outer harbor there were several hundred common eiders, a dozen white-winged scoters, a dozen common goldeneyes, and one horned grebe.

Tim and Laurisa Rich had a brown-headed cowbird at their feeder. They mentioned that they have had red-winged blackbirds in their yard all winter, with the numbers increasing during storms. They also have hosted a pair of purple finches all winter. Robin Bray had her first brown creeper and hairy woodpecker of the winter in her Katama yard. She also has red-breasted nuthatches and a red-bellied woodpecker. Dan Waters photographed a red-tailed hawk that flew through his Indian Hill yard at dusk. I mentioned that the photo showed the hawk with an extended (full) crop.

On Jan. 31 Tara Whiting saw an American kestrel at Black Point, and on Feb. 1 Happy Spongberg watched a confused brown thrasher visit her outdoor shower.

Andrea Hartman, Matt Pelikan and Rob Culbert have all noticed an increase in bird song. Perhaps spring is nearer than we think!


Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail to

Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her Web site is