Okay, let me get this straight: Revive and Restore, a San Francisco-based foundation that is an offshoot of Long Now Foundation, wants to introduce to the Vineyard a bird that is extinct — the heath hen — which has been genetically engineered from DNA extracted from a museum specimen. So, let’s say the genetic engineers are actually able to pull this off and a de-extinct heath hen is produced. An exciting concept, but to release it back on the Island seems foolhardy to me.

According to Edward H. Forbush, the heath hen used to range from “Cape Ann or Southern New Hampshire along the seaboard, including Long Island to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and probably Virginia. . .” Forbush’s Birds of New England and Other States was published in 1927, and it states that the heath hen was confined at that time solely to Martha’s Vineyard.

Now, the last heath hen died in 1932 on the Vineyard. Prior to this demise, other birds similar in make-up (prairie chickens) and from similar habitats (prairie) were introduced to the Vineyard in hopes that they would breed with the few remaining heath hens, or reproduce themselves. These birds perished and obviously did not reproduce or hybridize. This scenario was during an era when the state forest was actually a heath hen reservation, and predators were commonly hunted and shot. I have seen photos of large numbers of red-tailed hawks nailed up to the barn walls of the heath hen reservation. Now it is illegal to hunt any species of hawk.

The habitat of the heath hen reservation was sandplain or scrub. Now the state forest is primarily pine forest mixed with scrub. There is very little sandplain remaining.

Striped skunks and raccoons were not residents of Martha’s Vineyard in the early 1900s, nor were there hundreds of feral cats roaming the Island. None of these mammals are, to my knowledge, legally hunted on the Island. Skunks, raccoons and feral cats are predators especially lethal to ground-nesting birds.

If the de-extinction of the heath hen is successful, I sincerely doubt if they were re-introduced to the Vineyard that they would make it through one season. Why? They would be trying to survive in the wrong habitat and with incredibly increased pressure by predators.

If the de-extinct heath hen is to have a chance to survive on the modern day Vineyard there would have to be a large amount of money spent to eradicate skunks, raccoons and feral cats, and also to restore part of the state forest back to a habitat conducive to the needs of a heath hen. One might look to the Islands off New Zealand (Chatham and the Sub Antarctic Islands) and see the work they have done to rid the islands of predators to prevent the extinction of many of their bird species. It has been very successful.

Hudsonian godwits are annual visitors to the Island. — Lanny McDowell

Bird Sighting:

There have been several nice sightings this week. The first, a yellow-crowned night heron, was spotted by Nicholas Walsh at Caleb Pond on July 16.

July 17, Liz Balwin and Luanne Johnson spotted two pectoral sandpipers along with two semipalmated sandpipers on Chappaquiddick. Pectoral sandpipers usually arrive on the Island at a later date — what do they know that we don’t?

The shorebird of the week is a Hudsonian godwit, which was spotted by Lanny McDowell and then seen and photographed by Lanny and Ken Magnuson while I watched it through binoculars at Quansoo on July 18. Hudsonian godwits are annual visitors to the Island, but usually only a single bird.

Flip Harrington, Paul and Zach Magid spotted a Wilson’s storm petrel while fishing off Gay Head on July 21. Also known as Mother Carey’s chicken, these small pelagic petrels are found offshore during the summer months. On the same day, Jane Hawkes, who lives on Vineyard Meadow Farm Road in West Tisbury, spotted a white-winged dove at her feeder. She had a nice comparison as there was a mourning dove at the feeder as well. There have only been a handful of white-winged dove reports from the Vineyard, but we should expect more as the population is expanding northward.

Rob Culbert, during his weekly bird tour that went to Little Beach on July 19, found migrating semipalmated plover, greater yellowlegs and short-billed dowitchers. He also spotted the local nesting birds, including black skimmers, American oystercatchers and piping plovers as well as terns and gulls. Over on Chappaquiddick, Bill Post counted three green herons, a great blue heron and a skimmer at Caleb Pond.

Charlie Kernick watched a pair of great-crested flycatchers in the trees around the Mill Pond in West Tisbury on July 18.

Rob Culbert heard a veery singing in his Tisbury yard on July 19. 

On July 17 Flip Harrington and I went to Quansoo Beach flats and found a black skimmer, a ring-billed gull, short-billed dowitchers, American oystercatchers and semipalmated and piping plovers. Lanny McDowell was at Norton Point the same day and spotted a ring-billed gull and three black terns. The terns were seen again by Jim Suozzo on July 22 along with two saltmarsh sparrows and seven common eiders on the Katama Bay side of Norton Point.

Hugh and Joyce McCormick spotted a whimbrel, a willet and a great egret near their Chappaquiddick house on Edgartown Bay Road.

Jeff Bernier has been busy photographing young birds. Young black skimmer were photographed at Eel Pond on July 20. And on July 22, Jeff photographed a willet that had fledged at Eel Pond.

Lanny McDowell took Barbara Pesch, Flip Harrington and me to Norton Point on July 21. We counted two black terns, three immature piping plovers, greater yellowlegs, both semipalmated sandpipers and plovers, least sandpipers, willets and American oystercatchers. We watched as at least two families of barn swallows were hawking insects off the wet sand and several saltmarsh sparrows were occasionally perched on the beach grass.

It was July 18 when Lanny McDowell, Ken Magnuson and I watched a Hudsonian godwit feeding at Quansoo. We also counted nine piping plovers, five lesser yellowlegs, sanderlings, least and semipalmated sandpipers, short-billed dowitchers and five ospreys hunting over Tisbury Great Pond.

Ginny Jones and her grandsons Kent and Everett Healy found a Cory’s shearwater that had perished and was near Tissisa on Tisbury Great Pond on July 15. Finally, Amy Ludwing emailed to say that the leucistic song sparrow is still around East Chop as of July 16.

Tuesdays at 8 a.m. I will be leading bird walks for the Chilmark Community Center. On July 22 we went to Fulling Mill and highlights included a scarlet tanager, red-eyed vireo, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, ovenbird and both male and female common yellowthroats.

I have had several emails about injured birds this week. If the injured bird is a gull species, there is little that can be done, so it is best to leave it alone. If a songbird hits a window often it is just stunned, so leave it alone and protect it from predators and eventually it will probably revive and fly away. If the bird injured is a hawk or a duck species, one should call Gus Ben David as he has the proper permits and technics to care for these species.

Please report your bird sightings to birds@mvgazette.com.
Susan B. Whiting is the co-author of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her website is vineyardbirds2.com.