I guess it is official now; the northward migration of birds has begun, even though we have another month of winter! Ned Casey reports a grackle at his feeder on Feb. 18. I am wary of saying that grackles at feeders are migrants, as they could have overwintered but were not seen and reported. But that same day, Jo Maxwell spotted a flock of at least 75 grackles; someone would have seen and reported a flock that large. Then, on Feb. 22, Olsen Houghton had two grackles at his feeder. I also give extra credence to sightings of blackbirds that are not at feeders, and Penny Uhlendorf spotted a red-winged blackbird at the Tisbury Water Works on Feb. 15. Another soon-to-come sign of arriving red-wings is hearing them singing from their marshland summer territories.

Another sign of the approaching spring comes from Luanne Johnson, who reports that on Feb. 22 she observed a raven carrying a stick and heading toward its Vineyard Haven nest site, confirming that they are already starting to nest. They, like great horned owls, start nesting at this time of the year!

Ipswich sparrow
Ipswich sparrow. — Lanny McDowell

Bird Sightings

This week’s highlight has to be Bob Shriber’s sighting of a dark phase rough-legged hawk at the Gay Head Cliffs on Feb. 22. This species used to be seen regularly during the winter, but now a sighting is unusual and we do not see them every winter. He also spotted a common raven there. On Feb. 21 he spotted three Ipswich sparrows — a very pale subspecies of the savannah sparrow — at the Katama Airpark.

Although ovenbirds have been seen in several recent Decembers, a February sighting is extraordinary. Ken Magnuson found a dead ovenbird in the State Forest on Feb. 16, and suggests that it was alive a week ago since the carcass was not there the week before. A live ovenbird has been hanging out at a feeder in Woods Hole throughout the month of February, and was most recently sighted on Feb. 19.

Iceland gull
Iceland gull. — Lanny McDowell

Allan Keith observed a lesser black backed gull on Norton Point on Feb. 14. The power of spotting scopes — he found the bird while he was at the boat launching ramp on the north side of Mattakeset Bay! And speaking of gulls, an Iceland gull found me as I was visiting Eel Pond on Feb. 21. I was parked at the boat ramp when a very pale brownish gull flew right over my car! It obligingly landed on a mooring buoy, and through binoculars I could confirm its identity. Due to the wonders of texting, both Jeff Bernier and Bob Shriber found and photographed this individual. My other highlights for the day were black-bellied plovers, sanderlings and dunlin on Sarson’s Island, and after a lot of searches this winter, I finally caught up with a flock of snow buntings as they foraged along the roadside at the Katama Airpark.

Barrow’s goldeneyes are in the news again this week. Connie Alexander spotted one off East Chop recently, Bob Shriber had one at Head of the Lagoon Feb. 18, and Lanny McDowell spotted one near the drawbridge on Feb. 20. Are these three sightings all of the same individual?

Barrow's goldeneye
Barrow's goldeneye. — Lanny McDowell

Other waterfowl news includes Lanny McDowell’s sighting of ring-necked ducks and American wigeon at the Head of the Lagoon on Feb. 17. Olsen Houghton also visited there and spotted bald eagle, great blue heron and black-crowned night-herons. He also spotted a common merganser on the upper reaches of Tiah’s Cove.

And at Town Cove on Feb. 15 and 17, Francesca Zeta spotted gadwall, mallard, black duck, five pintail, 12 green-winged teal, ring-necked duck, long-tailed duck, bufflehead, hooded merganser and red-breasted merganser.

Other sightings of note include the fox sparrow frequenting Thaw Malin and Cynthia Bloomquist’s feeders, as of Feb. 21. Penny Uhlendorf reports a fox sparrow showed up at Pilot Hill Farm on Feb. 15. John Shillinger reports a murder of commuter American crows flew over Duarte’s Pond on Feb. 20, undoubtedly on their way to the winter roost near Ice House Pond. I spotted 45 fish crows between the Steamship Authority and Cumberland Farms on Feb. 20; is that all of the over-wintering fish crows on the Island? And Francesca Zeta has a pair of hairy woodpeckers visiting her suet near Tiah’s Cove Road.

Three fish crows.
Fish crows. — Lanny McDowell

One of our most popular summer residents is the black skimmer. BiodiversityWorks bands the hatchling skimmers to get information like the following, as posted by Helen Manchester. She reports that someone from an organization known as Bluebird Pharmacy took pictures of two banded black skimmers at Huguenot Memorial Park, at the mouth of the St. John’s River near Jacksonville, Florida. The photos enabled them to determine that these two adults were banded on Norton Point in 2018! Luanne Johnson adds that their banding has shown that a number of “our” skimmers spend their winter there, and that these two birds returned to the colony to nest last year.

Please email your sightings to birds@mvgazette.com.

Robert Culbert is an ecological consultant with Nature Watch LLC living in Vineyard Haven.