Counting Birds

Despite the wintry weather, the brant are still hanging out in Oak Bluffs. I notice how many there are when I drive by Ocean Park, and in late January the park was often vacant, probably because snow covered the grass.

If these birds read the literature, they would know they are supposed to be feeding on the water, in and around eelgrass beds, rather than grazing grass like their larger Canadia goose cousins. Sue Shea counted 20 brant at the Inkwell Beach on January 30, and Lanny McDowell observed some there on Jan. 25. I have observed up to 30 at the Farm Pond end of the seawall, and less frequently they have ventured to Vineyard Haven Outer Harbor and to Sengekontacket Pond.

Yet on both Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 I counted 141 brant in Ocean Park. There were plenty of grass shoots sticking up above the snow and they were actively grazing. One brant even had a foot-long stem in its beak, probably from one of the flower beds. Since this number is so much larger than the amount we find when they are swimming in the water, where else do these brant go when they are not in Ocean Park?

Bird Sightings

Gus BenDavid reports that the snow and cold temperatures make it difficult for barn owls. Their small mammal food is concealed under the snow and they burn more calories in cold temperatures. As he keeps track of the barn owl population on the Island, please contact him if you find a barn owl. Mr. BenDavid also reports that the brown-headed cowbird has returned to his feeder.

Nathalie Woodruff has not seen a single House Finch this winter. Matt Pelikan has only observed a few of them and suspects that their population has taken a real tumble. There are fewer of them in my Vineyard Haven neighborhood this winter. But Deborah Forest Hart reports lots of them at her home in Oak Bluffs and Sioux Eagle has plenty of them in West Tisbury. Allan Keith has a few of them coming to his feeder. Please let us know if your house finches have crusty, red or swollen eyes from the conjunctivitis that has been infecting and killing them for 20 years.

Lanny McDowell found a snow goose in with the Canada geese at the Farm Institute on Jan. 28. This is apparently the first sighting of this species since late December. This is probably the same individual, so where was the goose hiding for most of January?

Vasha Brunelle has found three dead horned grebes in and around Vineyard Haven harbor in the past week. The first two were found on Jan. 25 and 28, on the beach behind the Tisbury Shell station. The third one was found near Owen Park on February 3. What is going on? Has anyone else found dead seabirds along any of our beaches?

Now that days are getting longer we are starting to hear birds singing. None too soon as far as this writer thinks! William Waterway saw and heard the unmistakable song — a yodel really — of a common loon in Menemsha Pond on Jan. 29. Adding to the marine sounds, David Stanwood heard the wonderful sounds made by long-tailed ducks as they flew by the ferry on the harbor of Woods Hole.

Vocalizations are starting up on land as well. Matt Pelikan reports hearing his first song sparrow song of the year on February 1, and has heard tufted titmice singing as well. Penny Uhlendorf and Scott Stephens have heard those same two species singing, and Michael Ditchfield has been hearing cardinals in song. Penny Uhlendorf and Scott Stephens also spotted an eastern phoebe at the Wakeman Center on Feb. 1. This bird is probably trying to tough it out this winter, as it is too early for it to be a migrant. They also reported two eastern meadowlarks at Katama on Jan. 27, and that the fox sparrow has returned to their feeder.

Wendy Culbert and I have heard black-capped chickadees, cardinals and Carolina wrens singing in our yard. Anne Lemenager reports from East Chop that flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers are drumming (that is their “song”) and white-breasted nuthatches are chorusing, although they were all more quiet in the Feb. 3 snowstorm. Listen and learn them now, as the number and variety of birds singing will increase as the season progresses. Maybe spring will come sometime soon?

Tim and Sheila Baird spotted a merlin spotted along Atlantic Drive in Katama on Feb. 1.

Sharon Gamsby observed a flock of golden-crowned kinglets on Jan. 30.

On Jan. 30, Anne Lemenager found Oak Bluffs Harbor and Sunset Lake loaded with scaup, bufflehead, red breasted mergansers, hooded mergansers, common goldeneye, common eiders, common loon, horned grebe, brant, Canada geese, mute swans, and the usual mallards and gulls.

Tim Johnson observed a cooper’s hawk on Moshup Beach on Jan. 31, the same day that Jeff Bernier found an adult black-crowned night heron along the Mattakesett Herring Creek. Albert Fischer had a brown thrasher come to his feeder that day.

Lanny McDowell and Ken Magnuson observed long-tailed ducks courting in the ocean off Norton Point on Feb. 1. They observed a flock of 32 razorbills flying by further from shore. On the beach itself they observed three snowy owls, a dozen snow buntings and the typical winter shorebirds.

Allan Keith observed a ring-necked pheasant at his feeder, a species he had not seen there since last spring. The clay-colored sparrow is still present and may be the first record for this species overwintering on the Island. His feeder is an active place; he observed two Cooper’s hawks simultaneously harassing the birds at his feeder and Canada geese and white-tailed deer continue to partake of the seeds.

David Stanwood witnessed a spectacular parade of commuter crows as they flew over the front field at the Hoft Farm at 5 p.m. on Feb. 1. There were lots of fish crows calling amongst the American crows. This is a daily occurrence through the winter as they fly from Falmouth to the Vineyard every night, returning to the Cape every morning. There is a second flock of commuter crows that flies over East Chop as they commute from Mashpee to Oak Bluffs. As he suggests, this is a great opportunity for people to observe this spectacle that reminds us of some scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Remember that red-winged blackbirds will be back later this month, and that osprey will return in March. Although it may not feel like it, spring is coming!

There are lots of birds around, so please get out there to look for them, and be sure to report your bird sightings to

Robert A. Culbert leads guided birding tours and is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.