The annual Martha’s Vineyard Christmas Bird Count was held on Saturday, Jan. 4. There were 39 hardy people who ventured out into the cold weather (-7 degrees at the airport at 7 a.m.) to count birds, and another 14 people who recorded the birds visiting their feeders. This is quite a bit fewer than normal because the snow storm of Thursday and Friday prevented many of the usual off-Island birders from coming.
Despite fewer observers and the cold temperatures, our 12 field teams and the feeder watchers tallied 16,349 individuals and 119 species. Our total of 119 species almost equals our average total of 120 species since 1980. This year’s total is about one-third of the average number of individuals observed since 1980. In fact, only two counts since 1980 have recorded fewer individual birds (1990 and 2010).
We found a few unusual species. I do not report exact locations for these birds since they may have been seen on private property and/or I did not record detailed locations because we compiled the results after a long day in the field.
Two Eurasian wigeon were observed, one at the Head of the Lagoon and the other at Town Cove on Tisbury Great Pond. Also observed at Town Cove were a dozen tree swallows flying over the only open water on the pond.
An immature bald eagle was spotted at Felix Neck, and a brown-headed cowbird was spotted nearby at a feeder.
Chilmark produced a few unusual species, including an American kestrel seen in a field near Chilmark Pond. A short-eared owl was also observed in a nearby field. One lesser black-backed gull was found along the south shore closer to Squibnocket Pond. And a murre was seen offshore from Squibnocket, but could not be identified as to species.
One ruddy turnstone was found as it foraged along the rocks of a seawall in Oak Bluffs. An Iceland gull was also spotted nearby, and two Lapland longspurs were also observed in Oak Bluffs.
Two dovekies were spotted at opposite ends of the Island, one near Menemsha and the other from Chappaquiddick. This latter bird was observed flying past and its rapid wingbeats were aptly likened to a wind-up toy.
Two northern shrikes were observed at Lobsterville.
Five fish crows were observed in the parking lot at Cronig’s Market in Vineyard Haven.
Four American pipits were observed, two in the Squibnocket area and two in a snow-covered hay field in West Tisbury.
A yellow-breasted chat, always a surprising burst of bright yellow at this time of the year, was found in a dense shrub thicket in the Lambert’s Cove area. One clay-colored sparrow was observed; it has been present at a Chilmark feeder since November. We also tally what are called count week species; these species observed within three days of the count but were not observed on Saturday. So far, the count week species include great horned owl, eastern phoebe and pine warbler. However, count week includes the three days after the count as well, so we may add a few more species to this list. Some of the species we missed had been observed on the Island in December, including northern shoveler, American oystercatcher, red-shouldered hawk, snow goose, saw-whet owl, palm warbler and killdeer. Other notable misses include wood duck, canvasback, redhead, ring-necked pheasant and northern bobwhite. Bird Sightings One of the questions that Susan Whiting asked in last week’s column was how many snowy owls are on the Vineyard. We observed 10 snowy owls on Saturday, but heavy snow and unplowed roads limited our access to many of our beaches. Most notably, we could not access East Beach and Cape Pogue, where John Nelson recently observed eight snowy owls. And Gus BenDavid and Tom Chase found a remarkable 12 of them on those beaches on Jan. 1, including three of them in one view. The Chappaquiddick team, with their limited beach access, only recorded two, so there likely were 10 other snowies! The Aquinnah team could not access Long Beach and only found two snowies, although four were reported in the last week of December, so there were likely two other snowies present.
Thus, presuming these birds are fairly sedentary and territorial, we may have an amazing total of 22 snowy owls on the Vineyard! And this does not include any that might be hiding out on any of our large inland fields or on our more remote beaches that have not been checked, like Cedar Tree Neck and from Edgartown Great Pond to Watcha Pond. To put this abundance in perspective, this is only the 13th time snowy owls have been seen on a count since 1960, and our previous high count was two in 1974, 2001 and 2008.
Other recent reports of snowy owls include Peter Bagley on State Beach on Dec. 28, Laura Wessner at Katama on Dec. 27, and Wes Craven and Iya Labunka at Katama on Jan. 1. That day, Wes Craven and Iya Labunka also observed three cedar waxwings at Katama.
David Charles and his daughter Cara spotted an American kestrel sitting on a fence post at Bend in the Road Beach on Dec. 29.
Along with his eight snowy owls mentioned above, John Nelson observed six northern harriers and multiple groups of snow buntings on Cape Pogue on Jan. 1. Eleanor Hubbard observed an immature eastern bluebird at her West Tisbury feeder on Jan. 1.
To conclude, I feel obliged to comment on one of the many benefits of bird watching, which is getting out to see some amazing scenery around the Island. My bird count field team was at Long Point Wildlife Refuge at dawn on count day; because of the very cold temperatures, sea smoke (also called ground fog) was rising off the ocean and from the ice covering Tisbury Great Pond. It rose about 15 feet into the air before it dissipated, but was not thick enough to prevent us from seeing across the pond to the Chilmark shoreline and beyond. Despite finding a lot of birds, this view was the highlight of my day!
There are lots of birds around, so please get out looking for them, and be sure to report your bird sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Culbert leads guided birding tours and is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.