It was still daylight on Thursday evening, April 25, about an hour before the full moon was to rise in the eastern sky. The parking lot at the frisbee golf course in the state forest had about 10 cars in it, but the golfers were finishing up for the day. My guided birding tour was there for a different reason.
This meadow has been the most reliable place to find American woodcock in the spring ever since it was carved out of the state forest woodlands in the 1980s. And we were there to view the amazing courtship flight of this chunky, long-billed sandpiper that lives in the woods and fields, about as far from the shoreline as you can get.
We reached the middle of the meadow well before it was dark enough for the woodcock to begin displaying. A few eastern towhees were scrounging around in the underbrush, and many robins were giving their quiquiquiquis and other calls. Carolina wrens, song sparrows and cardinals were calling.
Though it was now dark enough for the woodcock to be peenting, they were not there. I was hoping that they had not disappeared from this meadow, as they have from just about every other down-Island meadow. Then the show began. First, in the woods off to the southwest came an ethereal, flute-like song starting with a long introductory note. It was the first hermit thrush of the year. Then came the whistling-fluttering sound of wings, as the male woodcock arrived on its courtship grounds. The peenting started moments later, and after a few minutes the spiraling courtship flight began. About half-way through the second courtship flight, the whippoorwill started its namesake monotonous chant. This three-species concert continued for about 10 minutes, until the full moon appeared behind the clouds above the treetops. A screech owl uttered its quavering tremolo, all on one pitch. And the concert was over.
This week’s sightings are dominated by the migratory songbirds that are beginning to arrive!
The most recent arrival is a Baltimore oriole, heard and observed by Rosemary Knowlton Hildreth in her Oak Bluffs yard on April 29. Matt Pelikan saw his first of the year on April 30, as it chattered and whistled at the cemetery in Vineyard Haven.
Michael Ditchfield and John Nelson report snowy egrets and greater yellowlegs in the salt marsh at Sengekontacket Pond on April 29. Several reports have come in about the great egret that has been at Farm Pond over the weekend. This larger egret is now more common on the Vineyard and snowy egrets are scarce, although the reverse was true as recently as the 1980s.
Common terns have also returned with two sightings. On April 29, Felix Neck got a report that they have returned to Haystack Island in Sengekontacket Pond near Ocean Heights, where they nest every year. Tamarra Martz reports seeing them at Norton Point the same morning.
Also on April 29 I found and heard a yellow warbler at Crackatuxet Cove. On April 28 Lanny McDowell spotted and photographed a northern rough-winged swallow perched near Sengekontacket Pond, and the next day I observed one perched at Moshup Beach amidst the flying barn and bank swallows. It is so much easier to observe their characteristic drab buffy throat when they are perched rather than the more usual observations in flight when they are darting here and there so quickly!
Suzan Bellincampi reports that she heard a whippoorwill in the early morning of April 28, as did Tom Rivers, who heard them calling in his yard at 12:30 a.m. that morning. Tom also reports a great crested flycatcher in Oak Bluffs and a black vulture over the hospital on April 19.
On April 27 Lanny McDowell found two northern parulas at Waskosim’s Rock. He also observed a blue-gray gnatcatcher and a black-and-white warbler. Allan Keith found both the blue-gray gnatcatcher and the northern parulas two days later and also added ovenbird, American redstart, and yellow-rumped warbler. I have been hearing the latter species singing, which is a fairly sure sign that they soon will be leaving us and heading north to their breeding grounds. Ken Magnuson reports that the gnatcatcher and lots of parulas are still at Wascosims as of April 30.
Anne Lemenager reports a belted kingfisher fishing in Sengekontacket Pond off Farm Neck on April 26. And Diane Emin reports a rose-breasted grosbeak at her feeder that day.
Penny Uhlendorf reports that her ruby-throated hummingbird arrived home at 10:30 a.m. on April 26. Les and Terry Cutler spotted their first hummer of the year at their feeder on April 29, as did Michael Ditchfield. All hummingbird feeders can be out now; have patience and your hummers will show up soon!
On April 25 Jeff Bernier noted that the willets have returned to Norton Point Beach.
And Ken Magnuson found and photographed an eastern kingbird at the Edgartown Golf Club on April 24. Marj Rines has a kingbird in her yard. What is most notable about the above sightings of recent arrivals is that they are all species that breed on the Vineyard. We all look forward to their return, but I wonder why there are no sightings of migratory species that are passing through to breed up in the woods of northern Maine and Canada, or even in the arctic?
John Nelson observed a purple martin along Moshup Trail back on April 17. Elsewhere he found two pairs of killdeer. On April 24, he headed out to Chappaquiddick and found horned larks, a flock of about 600 common scoters and 23 red-breasted mergansers.
Other birds are also out and about. Most notably, Nancy Rogers was at her kitchen sink yesterday when she observed a cardinal and a tufted titmouse making quite a ruckus in the tree right outside the window. They were harassing a screech owl sitting there, trying to go unnoticed. She photographed the owl and then left it alone.
Bob-whites are showing up again after a winter of camouflage and silence. They are here year-round but are exceedingly hard to find in the winter. Jean-Marc Dupon found one at Felix Neck on April 29, and Dardanella Slavin reports them from off Old Farm Road in Chilmark on April 28.
Two weeks ago I asked whether your red-breasted nuthatches are still around. Many of you reported back that they indeed are still around, and are still more abundant than their white-breasted nuthatch cousins. It will be interesting to see how long they hang around. On April 29 I observed a full breeding plumage red-throated loon out in the ocean off Moshup Beach. And on April 26 a first winter glaucous gull was flying around Crackatuxet Cove, making the nearby herring gull look small in comparison. Be sure to report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard bird hotline at 508-645-2913 or email email@example.com. Robert Culbert leads guided birding tours and is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.