Once upon a time northern bobwhites were a common bird on Martha’s Vineyard. Their bob, bob, white calls were a welcome sound coming from the meadows and fields of the Vineyard. Bobwhites are native to the United States. There are 22 subspecies of bobwhite quail or Virginia quail (other names for bobwhite). The subspecies of bobwhite from Massachusetts and the Vineyard was paler, larger and heavier than those from points south. Now, however, all the New England and Vineyard populations of quail are composed of birds that have been introduced and are darker and smaller. Massachusetts Department of Fish and Wildlife have stocked the Vineyard with quail over the years and now private individuals are rearing bobwhite quail and releasing them on many parts of the Island as well.
Both male and female bobwhites select a nest site after the male has flashed his potential mate. He ruffles up his feathers and spreads his tail. Then he turns his head sideways to show off the handsome white and brown facial pattern, runs at the female, slows down and walks slowly around a female to show how cool he is. Copulation completed, the nest site chosen is on the ground and usually amongst dense vegetation. Simple as can be, the nest consists of a shallow scrape that is lined with leaves and grass. To help camouflage this modest abode, the pair then proceed to build a roof of sorts. An arch of weeds and grasses are woven, leaving one side open for entrance and exit.
The nest constructed, the female lays between twelve and sixteen white-to- pale tan eggs. Both male and female incubate the eggs for about 23 days. The downy young hatch out and are overseen by their parents, but can feed themselves almost immediately. Youngsters try out their wings at around two weeks, but these are short flights. Their prolonged flights do not occur until the bobwhites are full-grown, which takes several more weeks. Similar to other species, the adult bobwhite quail, when challenged by a threat to their brood, will do a broken wing or other behavior to distract the potential predator.
Winter comes and the quail join forces and live in coveys, the old safety in numbers routine. As night approaches, bobwhites “circle the wagons” by placing their tails in and heads out and remain that way until daybreak. The bobwhite’s diet during the winter months consists of seeds, acorns and berries. The youngsters and adults feed on insects as well as spiders and snails during the breeding and summer seasons.
Don’t forget that bobwhite are dimorphic, a fifty-cent word that means they don’t look alike. A quote from Wikipedia gives an excellent description: “Males have a white throat and brow stripe bordered by black. The overall rufous plumage has gray mottling on the wings and a gray tail, and the flanks show white scalloped stripes. Whitish underparts have black scallops. Females are similar but are duller overall and have a buff throat and brow without the black border.”
Now, if you find a bobwhite quail nest, back away and go home and get your box of moth balls and spread them along the trail you took to reach the nest and around the nest. The scent of the moth balls will deter skunks, raccoons and cats, as it covers your scent. This may not work if it rains frequently, but it is worth a try.
Barbara Pesch counted two males, one female and three bobwhite chicks in her yard off Fulling Mill Road in Chilmark on August 12. Marie Scott at 6 a.m. on August 10 saw about 18 to 20 half-grown bobwhites right next to Whiting Way in Chilmark. Later in the week, Richard Steves had a covey of quail in his Sheep Hill yard. Both Spencer Booker and Delilah Meegan saw a covey of quail crossing Middle Road near Mermaid Farm last week.
Jim Sperling always calls back to bobwhites as he finds they will respond and often come close enough to be seen behind his house on Quitsa Lane (one lane over from Greenhouse, where Bill Lee last week reported calls and was still hearing them on August 9). “The bird came closer indeed, eventually mounting a nearby stone wall and calling frequently from that perch. The bird was very visible from that wall, and stayed still for a long while, calling out regularly”, said Jim.
Larry Hepler called to say he spotted two marbled godwits at Black Pond on August 7, two willets on August 9 and two great egrets on August 11. These are the first marbled godwits of the year and the first in two years. Nice spot, Larry.
Whit Griswold identified a whimbrel at Little James Pond in West Tisbury on August 11.
Rob Culbert reports that “the only thing that has struck me this week is the onset of land bird migration, best exemplified by the dickcissel at Felix Neck. I have also, all of a sudden, heard flocks — groups of six to eight great crested flycatchers. They are very noisy after a month of quiet. One flock was encountered on my Saturday morning tour, at the head of Lake Tashmoo. Other groups were seen at Farm Pond (South Circuit avenue), my house, Waterview Farm, and this afternoon in the trees between Ocean and Waban parks in Oak Bluffs (where I can’t imagine they are frequently observed).” Rob also added that he spotted a flock of eastern kingbirds at the head of Lake Tashmoo.
Flip Harrington and I agree with Rob, as on August 9 we observed seven Baltimore orioles feeding in the rosa rugosa outside our house on Tisbury Great Pond. We also counted two yellow warblers and a prairie warbler in the bird bath. On the Quansoo Road there are flocks of common grackles and red-winged blackbirds feeding.
Many birders reported a good cross section of shorebirds from all ends of the Island. Lanny McDowell and I agree that we have never seen as many white-rumped sandpipers as we have this year. On August 14 the Chilmark Community Center group not only spotted all the usual shorebirds, but also saw several white-rumped sandpipers and a red knot.
Bill Lee spotted the loon off Lobsterville that was discussed a couple of weeks ago. He thinks it might be a Pacific loon. I guess we better check the photos again and perhaps go look at it again through a scope.
Dick Jennings called to say that the two young merlins are alive and well on Chappaquiddick. He also noted that when Rob Bierregaard was here last weekend to evaluate the osprey population, he was stunned to watch a young merlin chasing an osprey. And speaking of ospreys, Dick Jennings has the latest data on the osprey population on the Vineyard and it is good! There were 78 active osprey nests, and from those 114 young ospreys fledged! There were 18 nest failures, so just imagine the number of young ospreys the Vineyard could have produced if these eighteen had made it! Thanks for your hard work monitoring the ospreys Dick and Rob.
More good news from Luanne Johnson, the Vineyard had 57 pairs of piping plovers and between 40 to 50 American oystercatchers. It will be interesting to read the Biodiversity Newsletter which will undoubtedly have fledgling reports as well as common, least and roseate tern information.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her web site is vineyardbirds2.com.