The shad spirit or Alewife bird is considered by a number of people a harbinger of spring. Ornithologists call this member of the sandpiper family Gallinago delicata. Bird watchers have called this agile flyer common or Wilson’s snipe. As much as I would like to think that spring is right around the corner, Wilson’s snipe cannot be used as an indicator of spring rains, herring runs, blooming shad bush or daffodils. This small, very chunky and long-billed shorebird remains on the Vineyard year-round even though mainland birds will migrate south for the winter.

Wilson’s snipe behavior can, however, be a sign that spring has sprung. If one ventures onto a soggy field or marsh in late March or early April they can hear the strange “who, who, who, who” sound that occurs every few seconds from on high. Known as winnowing, this is the sound of the Wilson’s snipe’s wings as it performs its breeding flight. It has been determined that this winnowing sound is produced by the snipe’s outer tail feathers vibrating as he glides towards the earth in a circle from high in the sky. Almost hitting the ground, the snipe turns and flies skyward on a diagonal path to repeat this amazing and weird-sounding flight. And why does this male Wilson’s snipe carry on so? You guessed it; he is trying to attract the female snipe that is hidden in the grasses below. Research has shown that an interested female may join the male in this aerial display. This shows not only a pair bonding, but alerts other snipe that this is their territory, and to stay out.

The final stage of snipe courtship occurs when a male Wilson’s snipe returns to earth and struts his stuff. He erects his tail, droops his wings and holds his head high as he parades around his lady love. If all else fails, the male snipe will fly in a spiral above the female uttering “love notes” as he descends. After the pair mates, the female constructs the nest which is a scrap on the ground lined with grasses and moss. In some cases the female actually builds a nice canopy over the nest! She lays four eggs, and 18 to 21 days later young ones hatch and both parents help feed the young by splitting the family, the male and female each feeding two chicks. This is done by dropping food in front of the youngsters or feeding them directly from the bill. In about 20 days the young are probing for insects in the same method used by their parents.

The bill of the Wilson’s snipe is quite a machine. Not only is the tip of the bill extremely sensitive and able to feel earthworms and other subterranean insects, the upper mandible can actually raise and curve to enable the bird to grasp earthworms and the like. Once in the bill the prey is moved to the back of the mouth by means of spines on both the tongue and back of the bill to its stomach. Fifty per cent of the food of Wilson’s snipe is insects; the rest is made up mainly of seeds, mollusks, fiddler crab, frogs and salamanders.

Global warming has changed the habits of this shorebird. Now the Wilson’s snipe arrives earlier than it did in the past and stays later. More Wilson’s snipes are seen on the Vineyard year-round than in the past and are always found during the Christmas Bird Count. The Wilson’s snipe was hunted hard until the end of the 19th century and is now in fair shape except where their habitat has been destroyed by one means or another.

Bird Sightings

Jeff Bernier took a great photo of a Wilson’s snipe on the wing at Katama on Jan. 6.

Good news! The Baltimore oriole that was thought to have met his match when attacked by a hawk (an accipiter) during the Christmas Bird Count was found by Ken Magnuson at a friend’s feeder next to the Sheriff’s Meadow Sanctuary in Edgartown on Jan. 3.

Deborah Sillimanwass of Aquinnah, Daniel Waters of Christiantown, Maggie Siebert of Tisbury and many others have noticed large flocks of robins feasting on their hollies or other fruiting trees and shrubs.

Rob Culbert found the Eurasian widgeon at the head of the lagoon, a lesser black-backed gull on the ice in the upper lagoon and fish crows flying in over East Chop on Jan. 2.

Snow buntings were found at Katama at the parking lot near Craxatucket by Jeff Bernier on Jan. 4. Jeff also found gadwalls and a green-winged teal at the head of Herring Creek at Katama Bay the same day.

Bluebirds have been seen by several observers. Suzan Bellincampi had several at Felix Neck and Bob Woodruff had a half dozen at his heated bird bath on Jan. 3. Bob Woodruff had two robins and a hermit thrush, for the third week as of Jan. 3 at his North Tisbury feeder.

Allan Keith has had a fox sparrow at his Turtle Brook Farm feeder since Jan. 2. The sparrow was still there on Jan. 9. On Jan. 2 Allan counted 32 black-bellied plovers and 73 dunlins on Norton Point, a considerably larger number than we had on the Christmas Bird Count. On Jan. 6 Allan found an Iceland gull at the Allen Farm in Chilmark and a Glaucous gull off South Beach in Chilmark on Jan. 6. He also found a single tree swallow over the marsh at the head of Town Cove on Tisbury Great Pond, three common redpolls on the West Tisbury/Chilmark town line, six wood ducks and a green-winged teal on the upper reaches of the Mill Brook, all in the same day.

Sally Williams had a common redpoll at her Oak Bluffs feeder on Jan. 5 and I had a single common redpoll at the Quenames feeder in Chilmark the same day.

Michael Ditchfield photographed a merlin by Edgartown Great Pond on Jan. 7 and found a single snow goose and photographed it as it grazed with a flock of Canada geese at Katama on Jan. 5.

Jeff Bernier photographed a late-staying great egret at Craxutucket Cove on Jan. 9. And, as far as I know, the Allen’s hummingbird is still alive and well on Pilot Hill as of Jan. 9.

Patrick Mitchell has not had good luck with screech owls. He confessed that he had never seen a live screech. On Jan. 8 he spotted one that had been hit by a car on North Road. Then he was coming out of Polly Hill Arboretum at dusk the same day and, much to his dismay, hit a red phase screech owl. I think we will have to take Patrick on an owl prowl some evening.

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

Susan B. Whiting is the co-author of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her website is