Spring seems finally to be here, and we have even had some nice spring weather. The thoughts of birds are turning toward their nesting season, as is evidenced by the increasing volume of birdsong. Owls are no exception, as they call more frequently at this time of the year as well. Some may already be on their nests while others are selecting their nesting sites.
Seven species of owls are regularly found on the Island. Only four of them nest here. Two other owls formerly nested on the Vineyard, and one is an occasional winter resident.
Our diminutive screech owl is slightly shorter than a robin, although it is stockier. They are the most common owl on the Island, and are easily recognized by their voice. One of their calls has been described as a whinny, or a quavering whistle that descends in pitch. Their other call is a long trill that stays at one pitch. There are two different color morphs of screech owls — red or gray — but they are all one species.
Barn owls are larger, almost the size of a crow. They are very pale, with a rusty-brown back and wings, and either white or cinnamon undersides. Their pale coloration combined with their propensity for nesting and roosting in barns (where did they nest before we built barns?) may make them the source of many a ghost sighting and/or reports of haunted buildings. Also adding to this mystique is their typical call, which is quite un-nerving and harsh; you will know what I mean when you hear their loud, raspy, hissing screech. The best place to see and hear one is at Felix Neck, where you can use a computer monitor located in the Discovery Room to observe them nesting in their upstairs apartment. To see the live owls you must call the sanctuary to arrange your visit, as they are active after dusk, when the sanctuary is normally closed.
Our largest owl is the great-horned owl, standing almost two feet tall. Their call is quite distinctive, a series of three to eight loud, deep hoots. Ecologically, they are the nocturnal version of our common red-tailed hawk; they live in the same woodlots and eat the same foods. Great horned owls only started nesting on the Vineyard in the 1990s. Their population is increasing as the several known pairs have fledged young.
Saw-whet owls are the smallest owls, only slightly smaller than screech owls. Although they have nested here, they are more common as winter residents. You will recognize their call if you have ever heard a saw being manually sharpened — whetted, a single note, monotonously whistled over and over again.
Both short-eared owls and long-eared owls formerly nested on the Island. Long-eared owls are declining throughout Massachusetts; they used to be found regularly in the state forest. Their call is a long hooo. Short-eared owls are now only occasionally seen in the winter, although they were abundant year-round at Katama as recently as the 1970s. They are active during the daytime, but are mostly silent except during their breeding season. One short-eared owl was present at Katama in February and March.
Snowy owls are unmistakable, as they are big white birds, active on the ground in daylight, most likely to be found on our beaches in the winter. We had one reported on Norton Point Beach this winter, but it did not stick around.
Barred owls are largish owls with the familiar “who-cooks-for-you, who cooks for you awwl” call. They are not found on the Island, although they have been heard from as close by as Falmouth. They are more widespread in western Massachusetts.
We do not have a good handle on how common any of these owls are on the Island. You can help correct this by listening for them after dark, and then reporting your findings. They are calling at this time of the year!
Migrants returning for the breeding season are always of interest.
Again this week Margaret Curtin gets the top spot here for the first report of an eastern phoebe along the edge of the Gray Barn farm field on April 2.
Justen Walker heard and saw American woodcock “peenting” and doing their courtship displays near Edgartown Great Pond on March 31.
Also on March 31, Katie O’Donnell spotted the first piping plover of the season on Leland Beach on Chappaquiddick.
A lot of our ospreys have returned in the past two weeks. On March 21 there were two reports: John Nelson and students found one at the high school football field light tower and Seth Abbott reports that one returned to Paul’s Point. Sally Cook found one at Wade’s Cove on Chilmark Pond on March 22. On March 24 Catherine Deese found one at Makoniky. Tracy Clark observed an osprey at the Harthaven pole on March 26. On March 27 Martha Moore spotted one at Middle Point Cove. On March 29 Nicky Bailey and I spotted an osprey perched on the pole near the entrance to Lake Tashmoo. Dexter Nerney reports that on March 30 an osprey has returned to the osprey pole at Crystal Lake. Joe Jims observed two osprey flying around Hidden Cove in Sengekontacket Pond on April 1. Most recently, on March 3, Albert Fischer spotted one over his house in Aquinnah, and I observed an osprey on the telephone tower at the Verizon building in Vineyard Haven.
There is a lot of news about non-migrants as well. Olsen Houghton reports finding a ring-necked pheasant at West Chop on March 19. This is a good sighting as West Chop is so wooded that it is not where we expect to find this uncommon species.
Janet Norton called to report a lone male Eurasian widgeon at her pond at Sweetened Water Farm. We can only wonder whether this is the same male that was at the Head of the Lagoon and then in Sengekontacket Pond at Ocean Heights in the past few months.
Sue Hruby reports that her Carolina wrens are nesting in her bedroom windows, where she gets a birds-eye view of the proceedings. Last year they nested in one window and then in a large hanging plant by the door. This year they are starting to nest in another window. We know they will nest around houses, but what a great opportunity to observe how quickly the eggs hatch and the chicks fledge!
On April 1, Ken Magnuson found a golden-crowned kinglet that was low enough in the tree to be photographed. Usually they are up so high in the trees that you are likely to get a sore neck watching them.
Ann Richards and Gary Mirando spotted 15 harlequin ducks and one male northern harrier while walking at Squibnocket on March 24.
Linda Mariano is excited to report her sighting of a goldfinch in its bright yellow, non-winter plumage.
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.