The nesting season for the birds of Martha’s Vineyard is upon us.

Last week’s discovery of the brown creepers’ nest nudged other birders to sharing their bird nesting stories. And I started thinking about all the different nests I have seen on the Island. The variety is amazing and the different architecture and material choices is immense. The range in size and shape is incredible, from the tiny one inch across and one inch deep cup of lichens and moss woven together by our ruby-throated hummingbird to our fish hawk’s massive old nests. The ospreys construct their nests of dead branches which they are known to snap off a tree or shrub with their talons and carry back to the nest. New osprey nests are only a two to three feet thick and around six feet across. Used year after year, an osprey nest can grow to be up to eight feet tall and weigh upwards to 60 pounds! Why so heavy? Because osprey love to add man made trash, bones, driftwood and seaweed to name a few items to their nests and then line it with grasses, sod and vines.

The shorebirds and terns are the least imaginative architects and builders. Most of terns, black skimmers, plovers, killdeer, willets and American oystercatchers’ nests are little more than a scrap in the sand or in the case of the killdeer a slight depression lined or unlined with material found nearby. Ducks, geese and swans can be classified as the laziest builders as they sit on their chosen site and then reach around them and grab what is on hand to build a nest. From a different perspective maybe this group can be deemed the most efficient nest builders.

There is a group of birds that are hole nesters. Bank swallows and belted kingfishers use their bills and feet to excavate holes in banks for their nest site. Bank swallows are a little classier as they line their burrows with feathers and fine grasses whereas the kingfisher has no lining. Woodpeckers and flickers are hole nesters also but dig into the sides of dead, dying or even live trees to provide a place to raise their young. Northern flickers, red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers lay their eggs in the “sawdust” or chips produced during cavity excavation of their tree hole nests. If they chose to use nesting boxes as flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers are want to do, no nesting material is added to the interior.

The barn swallow is up on the list of fabulous designers. They make up to 1200 trips back and forth from a muddy patch to their nest site. They mix the mud with grasses and glue their nest cup to the side of a barn rafter and then line it with feathers. This is a sight to behold. Two other Vineyard nesters also glue their nests to their chosen location. The eastern phoebe is another mason that uses mud to attach its nest to a ledge or rafter. The phoebe uses a larger variety of materials than the barn swallow, the result is a more circular nest which is attached at the bottom, not the side, and is lined with hair and fine grasses with the exterior “shingled” with mosses. The final Vineyard nester which uses an adherent nest is the chimney swift which sticks its half cup of twigs nest onto the inside of a chimney or hollow tree with its own saliva. I would love to see the chimney swift break a twig off with its feet and transfer it to its beak on the way to the nest site which is its way to get the construction material to site. This is certainly a cheaper method of transit than using the SSA.

Songbirds, on the other hand, design and build much more elaborate nests. The brown creeper perhaps receives the architectural design award for its hammock shaped nest attached and hanging from behind the bark of a tree. The Baltimore oriole is famous for its long pouch made of long vines, plant fibers, hair and even yarn and string if around. Hanging from a deciduous tree, the oriole nest looks like a holiday ornament. And then there is the vireo family. The red-eyed vireo builds a pensile nest (loosely hanging) which is located in the fork of a branch from which a horizontally situated nest rests. Spider webs attach the nest to the twigs. Made of grasses, rootlets and vine tendrils, the vireo’s nest is light and airy.

The most common nests we see on the Vineyard are the cup shaped ones built by American robins, gray catbirds, sparrows, blackbirds and the warblers. Robins as well as other songbirds often reuse last year’s nest. To watch a robin refit a nest is sort of like observing the restoration of an old house. First bring in the mud and shore up the base, then bring in new grasses and weeds and put them into the wet nest. Next climb into the nest and wiggle around in a circle molding the wet base with your breast while tucking in the grass and weeds! Bingo, a newly refurbished home!

There are two warblers that have taken the cup nest to extremes. The ovenbird builds its cup shaped nest on the ground usually in a depression. The top of the nest is covered with dry leaves and the surrounding vegetation which renders it invisible from above. The entrance to the nest is on the side and this construction makes the ovenbird nest look somewhat like the oven at Orange Peel Bakery in Gay Head; hence the name of the warbler. The northern parula tries to find Usnea which is a hanging tree-lichen into which it builds a cup nest of light grasses and bark shreds. The parula’s nest as with the ovenbird is open from the side and is well camouflaged within the hanging Usnea. In the south the northern parula uses Spanish Moss to hide its nest.

Finally, the first nest I ever saw was an egg resting on a pile of sticks up in a pine tree. I thought the egg had fallen from elsewhere but in fact what I was looking at was a mourning dove nest. Nests come in all shapes and sizes and they should be avoided this time of year. If you want to identify the owner of the nest, wait until winter when the leaves have fallen and the birds have headed south. Then check out the nest and figure out who built the structure.

Bird Sightings

Simon Perkins was on Island conducting a survey near Oyster/Watcha Ponds on June 6. He went out to South Beach from there and spotted not one but twenty-seven lesser black-backed gulls. He also saw one red phalarope.

Dick Jennings was walking around Duarte Pond on Lambert’s Cove Road on June 7 when he found an American crow that was totally wrapped up in fishing line. Dick gently spoke to the crow during the half hour it took to untangle the crow. Once the line was removed, the crow paused for a second and then flew away. Please fishermen dispose of your spent line responsibly!

Tim Leland was pleased to hear whip-poor-wills by his Wasque home on the evening of June 8.

On June 9 Pam Hafner Davey found a yellow-crowned night heron at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary and took a photo with her cell phone to verify the ID. Thanks Pam. Even a cell phone photo helps us identify birds! A visit from red-tailed hawk caused a silence in the West Tisbury yard of Mary Beth Norton on June 9.

Rick Karney and others have noticed that the male hummingbirds disappear from feeders for a while in the early summer. The male hummingbirds are feeding the females that are sitting on eggs. The males probably grab food closer at hand during that time. They will return!

Linsey Lee reported on June 10 that she and Brendan have a pair of Eastern Phoebes nesting over their front door. Lindsey also added that that they have two pair of Carolina wrens nesting around their home. One is in the outside shower and the other in a sweatshirt that has been hanging on the porch for two years. The sweatshirt was used last year by the wrens as well.

Barbara Pesch was excited to see that a female northern harrier has been carrying food to a nest site on Chilmark Pond daily. She noted that the harriers used to nest there, moved for several years and now have returned. Barbara did mention that she had not seen the male harrier. There is one nesting at Quansoo and maybe he is tending another female there. Barbara also has a Carolina wren nesting in her flower box on Fulling Mill Road as well as house wrens.

Allan Keith and Pete Gilmore checked out the nesting colony at Norton Point and found two American oystercatcher families, one with three young and the other with two. They also spotted three red knots.

Flip Harrington and I watched a great egret and a belted kingfisher fishing on Tisbury Great Pond on June 10 and 11.

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

Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her website is