Black-capped chickadees are singing frequently now, and it is a welcome sound of spring. Their song is a clearly whistled feee-beee. Chickadee song on the Vineyard is unique, as both notes are sung on the same pitch; almost everywhere else the second of these two notes is at a lower pitch than the first note. The chick-a-dee-dee-dee that we hear frequently is their call note rather than a song.
While we have known this for a long time, the story is even more interesting than we thought, thanks to the research of Dr. Donald Kroodsma, a well known expert on bird song. He wrote about the chickadees and many other species in his book, The Singing Life of Birds.
Dr. Kroodsma prefers to describe the nation-wide song as hey-sweetie, with a slight pause in the second note. The pause is so slight that I never noticed it until I read his book. Now I hear it if I listen carefully. The chickadee is the only songbird whose song is so uniform throughout its range, which he attributes to their frequent eruptions where adults move great distances during the fall and winter seasons.
It gets more interesting here on the Vineyard where the song is backwards, sweetie-hey, with the whispered break in the first syllable. And it is sung at either a high pitch or a low pitch, corresponding to the two different pitches of the mainland chickadee song. Other dialects were discovered when the Vineyard’s chickadees were studied in the mid-1990s. Sweetie-hey was sung on the western half of the Island, but some chickadees in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown sang sweetie-sweetie, while other chickadees in Edgartown sang so-sweetie-sweetie.
He speculates that these unusual songs originated at the peak of sheep farming more than 200 years ago, when chickadee habitat was perhaps only a few widely separated patches of woodland. And these dialects are maintained now because our year-round resident chickadees are isolated from mainland chickadees by Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds. I have never heard the “Vineyard” song anywhere else and I have heard the “mainland” chickadee song only five or six times on the Island since the late 1970s.
Banding data also supports the isolation of the Vineyard’s chickadees. The late Grace Coit Meleney and Mabel Gillespie both banded birds on the Vineyard in the 1950s and 1960s; fifty-two of the 1,439 black-capped chickadees they banded were recovered and only one of them was recovered off-Island.
I am listening to the chickadees at my house sing now, and they are still singing sweetie-hey. But what about the other chickadees? Have the Vineyard chickadees maintained the diversity of songs that were present in the 1990s? This sounds like a good citizen science project — what are your chickadees singing?
Ruby-throated hummingbirds have been doing some unusual things this spring. They spend their winters in the southern half of Central America, and every year they arrive along the Gulf of Mexico shoreline in late February or early February. In most years they do not arrive in New England until mid-April, but this year the first New England sightings are from March 14 to March 23, or almost one month early. So now is the time to put up your hummingbird feeder, for any hummingbirds around now are likely to need the extra food to survive the inevitable cooler temperatures. (The maps of hummingbird migration can be viewed at hummingbirds.net/map.html).
Speaking of spring migrants, Nancy Weaver and Patrick Best saw their first tree swallows at the head of the Lagoon on March 24, and Margaret Curtin observed them again the next day.
The osprey arrived on March 21. Matt Pelikan observed one by the Cranberry Acres Pond, and Nathalie Woodruff observed one flying over East Chop near the Oak Bluffs harbor. Jeff Bernier found one flying over Wintucket Cove. I observed one as it silently circled briefly over the chimney at the Oak Bluffs Pumping Station and then flew off to the west. Nancy Weaver, Patrick Best and Margaret Curtin report seeing the osprey on March 24 on their top of the chimney nest at the pumping station. Joe Fragosa observed three osprey near Cedar Tree Neck on March 26, and the osprey have returned to the pole at Felix Neck.
Jeff Bernier spotted a greater yellowlegs on the tidal flats of Sengekontacket Pond by the bend on March 24.
Luanne Johnson had a winter wren singing on Lambert’s Cove Road on March 22. It was still present and singing on March 24.
Also on March 22, David Dandridge photographed an unusual passenger on board the M/V Martha’s Vineyard – a house finch.
Lanny McDowell observed and photographed a male yellow-bellied sapsucker at his home on March 23. And on March 25 he observed probably the smallest sharp-shinned hawk he has ever seen, which was so small that he thought it might have been a robin until he used his binoculars to see its posture, raptor beak, spaghetti talons, and small round head. He has also observed a slew of singing pine warblers, and at Cranberry Acres there still are wood ducks, ring-necked ducks, golden-crowned kinglets, and dark-eyed juncos. Jeff Bernier adds yellow-rumped warblers to the list.
The nesting season has started. Penny Uhlendorf reports that Carolina wrens are nesting on her porch, which seems early. I observed house sparrows nesting in the thorny pyracantha shrubs at the Vineyard Haven Post Office. And Suzan Bellincampi reports that the Felix Neck barn owls have at least five eggs.
On the nesting shorebird front, I spotted two American oystercatchers on the sandbar in the Lagoon adjacent to Tisbury Marketplace and Suzan Bellincampi reports that there are at least three oystercatchers in the Sengekontacket Pond/State Beach area. Two male piping plovers were at the entrance to Lake Tashmoo on March 25.
We are always interested in hearing about where great horned owls are calling, as this will help document their spread across the Island. To this end, David Stanwood heard one calling near the Hoft Farm off Lambert’s Cove Road on March 27. Does this represent a new pair or is it one of the adults that are known to be nesting at the nearby Phillip’s Preserve?
Winter residents are still present at the pumping station, although generally in smaller numbers than they were in previous months. Various observers have reported pied-billed grebes, American coot, black-crowned night-heron, great blue heron, American wigeon, hooded merganser, bufflehead, greater scaup (on the Lagoon Pond side of the causeway), and yellow-rumped warblers.
Please be vigilant, for you never know when you might see (or hear and want to see) an unusual bird.
Robert Culbert leads guided birding tours and is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven. Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.