We have had a spate of dead seabirds along our shores. Most recently, Lanny McDowell found five dead razorbills and one dead common murre along a half-mile stretch of Cow Bay on Feb. 23. This is in addition to the several other similar reports from Lucy Vincent, Menemsha and Nantucket. What is going on?
The past month has seen what seems to be unusual mortality from Long Island to Cape Cod. The Wildlife Health Event Reporter (whmn.org/wher) maps the reports they get, and in approximately the last month their online map shows the following dead birds: 22 razorbills, four dovekies, three red-breasted mergansers, three Atlantic puffins, and one of each of the following: common murre, thick-billed murre and northern gannet.
SEANET (Seabird Ecological Assessment Network, seanetters.wordpress.com) reports that a rehab facility on Long Island is attending to more than 15 dovekies brought in since December. On the Island we have had seemingly unusual numbers of these alcids too, some of which were rescued by transporting them to large bodies of water so they can feed and then fly back to their normal oceanic habitat. SEANET also reports dead razorbills started showing up this winter in Florida (December), North Carolina (January) and now in the northeast. They do not suggest why this is occurring.
Dr. William Montevecchi, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, suggests that a lack of food is the most likely cause for this mortality, although nothing has been confirmed. He points out that there were unusually warm surface waters from the Arctic and north Atlantic last summer that apparently caused some unusual changes to the food web. These anomalies may or may not be connected to the observed mortality and other unusual occurrences.
While we do not know the cause of this mortality, it does not reflect the abundance of seabirds in our region. Razorbills are the most common alcid we have, but are not even close to being as abundant as red-breasted mergansers, common eiders or the three scoter species.
The last time we observed significant mortality of seabirds was in February 2006, when we found hundreds of dead seabirds, mostly common eiders. An internal parasite called the spiny-headed worm likely caused the eiders to starve to death.
Hopefully you will not find more of these dead seabirds as you are walking along our beaches, but please report them if you do! A photograph would be helpful if you do not know what species it is.
And on to more lively topics!
Multiple people are still reporting lots of red-breasted nuthatches in their yards. Please keep reporting them, as they will head back to their more northern breeding grounds sometime soon (as will the still present crossbills, redpolls and pine siskins).
A savannah sparrow was found on Feb. 22 by Ken Magnuson at the Farm Institute.
Tim and Sheila Baird report lots of activity at their feeders, including the following highlights: a yellow-bellied sapsucker on Feb. 19, a brown-headed cowbird on the 20th, a red-winged blackbird on the 22nd, a kestrel on the 23rd and both cardinals and song sparrows singing on the 26th.
On Feb. 22 Lanny McDowell found a male common merganser at the north end of the West Tisbury Mill Pond, an unusual location for this distinctive duck. Also that day, in another unusual location, Gus Ben David reports two greater scaup on Sunset Lake, across the road from Oak Bluffs Harbor. Gus also reports that both pine siskins and common redpolls are the highlights of activity at his feeders.
Erica Nason reports a common loon on the beach at Wasque on Feb. 23. She commented that it stayed on the beach despite the close approach of people and several waves washing up close to it. They occasionally rest on the beach and when they do they are hesitant to move; since their legs are so far to the rear of their body it is awkward for them to move on land. However, this unexpected behavior is worth noting given the rash of dead seabirds as discussed above.
Adrian Wright found an American coot on Feb. 24. I think of them as a mostly freshwater species, so it is nice to know that at least one survived the recent freezing, icy weather.
On Feb. 25, Jeff Bernier found the Iceland gull (not ivory gull as reported in last week’s column) in Menemsha that Lanny McDowell and Gus and Deb Ben David found last week. It is still using the large pile of scallop shells to find bits and pieces of scallops.
Pam Shillig Coblyn reports finding and photographing a male ring-necked pheasant strolling through yards along Slough Cove Road in Katama on Feb. 26.
On that same day Luanne Johnson was on Chappaquiddick and reports brown creeper, hermit thrush, eastern towhee (singing — add that to your list of signs of the coming spring), northern flicker and robin. And on a smooth-as-glass Cape Pogue Bay there were common goldeneye, bufflehead (courting), red-breasted merganser, black duck, mallard and hooded mergansers, while horned grebes were near the shoreline at Wasque.
Also that day I found two gadwall and two green-winged teal in the small pond at the head of Lake Tashmoo. It was such a close-up view of the gadwall that I saw two field marks that I did not remember — a much darker crown and a brownish/rufous patch on the wing — so I thought they might be an interesting hybrid. Looking at the field guides when I got home confirmed that I do not see gadwall very often, as it was a normally plumaged adult rather than a hybrid. It was low tide that afternoon, and there were about 200 black ducks on the tidal flats at the northern end of Lake Tashmoo. I find it amazing how so many of them appear on these full moon low tides. Where are they the rest of the time?
I know it is not our island, but it is still worthy to conclude by noting that Edie Ray reports that there are three lapwings on Nantucket. Two of these unusual to New England birds have been present all winter, so where did the third one come from?
There are lots of birds around, so please get out looking for them, and be sure to report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard bird hotline at 508-645-2913 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Culbert leads guided birding tours and is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.