This weekend is the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, another event where you can watch birds and help scientists understand bird populations. Last year more than 140,000 people submitted their data, creating the largest instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations ever recorded.

Last year only 11 people participated from the Vineyard, and they found 45 species. Come on everyone, we need to do better than that! There are more than 11 birders on the Island, and there are also way more than 45 species. We recorded 138 species just in the month of January.

This year’s count starts on Feb. 12 and continues through Feb. 15. All we have to do is to count birds for at least 15 minutes on one of those days. Then enter your sightings online at You can enter as many different checklists as you want to — from different places, different days or both.

I did not participate last year, but will this year. I hope you do too.

Common murre are spotted at sea, not during backyard bird counts. — Lanny McDowell

Bird Sightings

Last week I discussed the rescue of a stranded thick-billed murre that was found alongside a paved road by Julie Verost and Scott Hershowitz, who released it on a nearby pond on Jan. 27. Unfortunately, there is a sad ending to this tale, as Frank Flanders spotted the murre in the talons of a red-tailed hawk in the state forest on Feb. 3; a most unusual sighting. The red-tail probably found the dead murre and carried it off, then dropped it for some reason, and Mr. Flanders was able to identify it. Most likely, the murre was either injured or sick, which is why it got blown onto land in the first place. The normal habitat of a healthy murre is the open ocean, far from land, where they gracefully dive then fly underwater to catch fish.

I also forgot to mention that Buddy Vanderhoop and Hollis Smith performed a similar good deed a few days before that, on Jan. 24. They rescued a stranded common loon from the side of the road at the Aquinnah Circle, releasing it at the head of Menemsha Pond. Once these seabirds (loons, murres, and others) are on land they become stranded because their legs are too far to their rear to enable them to walk.

Speaking of seabirds, Ken Magnuson, Lanny McDowell and Pete Gilmore went on a pelagic cruise out of Hyannis on Feb. 7. They did not see any murres, but they did find several Atlantic puffins, northern fulmar, razorbill and sooty shearwater. Mammals included a common dolphin and humpback and fin whales. All are pelagic species that are seldom seen closer to the Vineyard at this time of the year.

The snowy owl is still here. Rick Dwyer, Olsen Houghton, Joel Graves, Jeff Verner and I all spotted the owl on Feb. 7, on Norton Point Beach. When Mr. Verner and I saw it that afternoon, the owl was perched atop a Norton Point dune due south of the boat-launch ramp at Katama Bay. From the ramp the bird was quite visible with binoculars. Mr. Houghton and Mr. Graves were out on the beach, and also report a razorbill, peregrine falcon, long-tailed ducks, all three scoter species, horned grebes, common goldeneyes and a northern harrier.

Moses Gazaille found a snowy owl at Brush Pond near Windermere. This is undoubtedly a different snowy than the one on Norton Point. And we have had a few reports of a snowy owl at Edgartown Great Pond. We know that there are quite a few snowy owls along the Massachusetts coast, and because of these sightings, we likely have more than one on the Vineyard. Please photograph any snowy you see, and send it to me care of the Gazette, so we can try to determine how many there are. The snowy on Norton Point is almost pure white, so any owl with dark streaking would be a different individual.

Lisa Bibko-Vanderhoop photographed an adult red-tailed hawk perched on the top of the Aquinnah lighthouse on Feb. 6.

Sharon Simonin found some common goldeneye off East Chop. While there are small numbers of them in most ponds, I found 18 of them in Eel Pond. I was unable to find the Barrow’s goldeneye that had been present there in January.

Horned larks. — Lanny McDowell

A phoebe showed up at Allan Keith’s farm in Chilmark on Feb. 3. He often has a phoebe hanging around through the winter, but he has not seen any phoebes since October or early November. Maybe this bird is an early migrant? He also reports his first field sparrow of the winter on Feb. 8. He periodically sees the vesper sparrows that he first reported in late January, and red-winged blackbirds occasionally visit his feeder. He found the Pacific loon near Menemsha on Feb. 2.

Finally, on Feb. 7 I found two horned larks on State Beach near the Jabberwocky handicapped access parking in Oak Bluffs. They can almost always be found between there and the Big Bridge. Soon — within one month — their high-pitched tinkling song will be heard, making it easier to find this inconspicuous bird.

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

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

Photos of recent bird sightings on the Vineyard.