This has been an especially exciting fall for birders, both regionally and on the Vineyard. Since the last Bird News, the bird of the week, year and possibly the decade showed up at the always-birdy home of Penny Uhlendorf and Scott Stephens, off of Lambert’s Cove Road. Recognizing their visitor as a hummingbird, and not the usual one, Penny and Scott put the word out. Lanny McDowell responded first, camera in hand, and took a series of pictures that conclusively documented the Island’s first-ever Allen’s hummingbird.
The western U.S. features a good diversity of hummingbirds, with about 15 species occurring regularly in the region (as opposed to the East’s lonely ruby-throated hummer). Just a couple of decades ago, all of these birds were quite rare as vagrants in the East. But some combination of factors — more observers, more feeders left out later into the season and a warming climate — launched a steadily-growing wave of hummer records, most from the late autumn, that would have once defied belief.
Of the western hummers, the most difficult ID question may center on the rufous and Allen’s, two closely-related species of the west coast. Rufous, the more northerly breeder, is also the more strongly migratory and hence more prone to vagrancy. The Bay State has dozens of records for this species over the last 20 years or so. Not so with Allen’s, a breeding bird of the California coast that winters in Mexico. This relatively short-distance migrant rarely turns up as a vagrant. As far as I can determine, the Vineyard bird is just the fourth ever confirmed in the Bay State (the third was found earlier this fall in western Massachusetts).
In some plumages, distinguishing rufous and Allen’s comes down to the shape of the outer tail feathers. Not surprisingly, many records of vagrants refer to “rufous/Allen’s,” with the specific ID undetermined. The majority of these, though perhaps not all, were probably rufous. Lanny’s photography caught a diagnostic view of the feathers in question, and several of the state’s best birders promptly and unanimously dubbed the bird an Allen’s. The rare visitor was still present as of Wednesday, enjoying room-temperature sugar syrup, nectar from pineapple sage blossoms and the odd flying insect.
On somewhat more normal turf, we are well into gull season now, and so it was not too surprising when Jeffrey Bernier shot some gorgeous photos of a black-headed gull in Edgartown harbor late last week. This elegant gull, a bit larger than the more common Bonaparte’s gull, falls into the “rare but regular” class in our region. Allan Keith was able to relocate the bird on Saturday. Allan tallied a first-winter glaucous gull at the sea wall near Farm Pond in Oak Bluffs, which unfortunately was nowhere to be found when I scoured the waterfront the next day. Allan also contributed a report of an immature Eurasian wigeon in the large waterfowl flock that has been hanging out at the head of the lagoon.
The brant flock that winters annually on Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs is especially large this year. Perhaps last year’s mild winter resulted in healthier adults migrating north last spring and breeding more prolifically. Bert Fischer counted more than 100. But this species is still outnumbered by our feral Canada geese. A very patient Sally Williams counted more than 200, which would account for the deplorably poopy condition of the park’s grass! Happy Spongberg watched a subset of these brant bathing in Crystal Lake on Tuesday, including one euphoric bird turning barrel-rolls in the water.
As winter sets in, the likelihood of alcids in our waters increases. On Monday Lanny photographed a razorbill off Eel Pond, Edgartown, and Michael Ditchfield added another report of this species from the ferry. Less expected were two dovekies, also observed from the ferry, reported on Nov. 30 by Warren Woessner. This tiny seabird winters mostly on the open ocean and is quite rare here, reported less than annually by Vineyard birders.
Usual for the season but always fun, a substantial flock of horned larks is hanging around Katama (or perhaps more than one flock). John Nelson counted 56 at Katama Farm and Jeffrey Bernier found this species on South Beach. Jeffrey also obtained some stunning photos of a snow bunting at Katama Farm, and a flock of this species was observed last weekend over Ocean Park. Snow buntings are wary and elusive, but can often be found by the alert observer on beaches, bare ground, short-grass fields or as a “fly-over.” Hint: learn the species’ distinctive call notes. Clearly, Vineyard birding stays hot even as the weather gets cold!
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.