It all started with a déjà vu birding experience by Whit Manter. He was returning from a trip off-Island on Sunday, October 4. As he drove out to his house on Tisbury Great Pond, he spotted a bird which he recognized as a rare visitor. The reason Whit was able to identify the bird quickly is that he spotted the same species, a Say’s phoebe, six years before in almost the exact location!

Although this is the second Say’s phoebe to visit the Vineyard this fall and only the fifth record for the Island, Whit still called around to Vineyard birders to alert them of the phoebe’s presence. The call came in late in the afternoon so we, the Vineyard birders, hoped that the bird would remain until the next day. Unfortunately that was not to be. However, what happened as a result was fascinating.

Lanny McDowell and Bob Shriber went over to Pond View Farm early on October 5 and started scouting around the spot Whit Manter described. Lanny and Bob “dipped” (bird vernacular for not seeing the bird they were after) on the Say’s phoebe, but found a very yellow warbler-sized bird. Whit Manter drove up shortly after Lanny and Bob spotted the bird and although all three men thought at first the bird was a yellow warbler they weren’t comfortable.

The bird in question was very yellow; more so than even a yellow warbler would be in its dull fall plumage. The mystery bird was hanging around with house sparrows and feeding on the ground, something that is no self-respecting warbler would do. These questions created enough curiosity that Lanny started photographing the bird and Bob and Whit paid special attention to the field marks.

The combination of the pictures and views by the three men resulted in an agreement that the mystery bird was in the finch family due to its heavy bill, but that they had no idea what it was! Next step, Lanny McDowell sends photos to many birders including Jeremiah Trimble at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. Jeremiah and several others identify the bird as a saffron finch (Sicalis flaveola) which is actually a tanager found in South America. Another suggestion was that the bird was an orange-fronted yellow finch which is very similar to the saffron finch but an inch smaller.

I discovered that the Saffron finch is a beautiful songster, unlike the orange-fronted yellow finch, and as a result is frequently kept as a caged bird. The Brazilian name is Canario-da-terra-verdadeiro and one wonders if a Vineyard Brazilian may have lost his caged saffron finch! So I called Gus Ben David and he suggested I call Little Leona’s Pet Shop, which I did. Leona doesn’t raise Saffron finches, but suggested that I call a Brazilian woman who raises finches. Unfortunately there was no answer, so the puzzle as to where the saffron finch came from is still unresolved.

Bird Sightings

I would like to thank both Natalie Woodruff and Noah Chivian for sending me their photos. Nat sent great shots of ruby-throated hummingbirds at her feeder and Noah shots of osprey and outstanding shots of northern harriers.

Luanne Johnson and Liz Baldwin are conducting a survey of river otters around the Island. They need to find areas where otters get out of the water, roll and leave scat (poop). If you know of some areas like that, please email them at

On Sept. 30 Janet Norton called to say she had a very strange teal in her duck pond in Edgartown. Lanny McDowell went to photograph the bird and discovered after some phone calls and e-mails that the birds in question were a pair of ringed teal that had gone “walk about” from the World of Reptiles and Birds.

Sad news comes from the crew tracking the ospreys tagged on the Vineyard. The last time Isabel transmitted her location was on Sept. 22. She was in Venezuela and Rob Bierregaard and Dick Jennings thought she had a safe place for the winter. Hopefully the transmitter failed and she is enjoying a nice winter.

Steve Motyl came to bird on the Vineyard for the first time between Sept. 26 and Oct. 1. He sent me his list and the best birds included barn owl, olive-sided flycatcher (Sept. 26 at Long Point), and rose-breasted grosbeak. Steve joined Rob Shriber, Lanny McDowell and me on a day of birding on Chappaquiddick on Oct. 1. Our best birds included wood duck, red-breasted merganser, whimbrel, ruddy turnstone, least sandpiper, yellow-bellied sapsucker, ruby-crowned kinglet, yellow, magnolia, black-throated blue, palm, and blackpoll warblers, indigo bunting and bobolinks.

Gus and Deb Ben David chalked up their 66th yard bird for the World of Reptiles and birds on Oct. 1 when they had a male rose-breasted grosbeak in the yard and a great egret fly over. You will make 100 one of these days! Warren Woessner spotted the Lapland longspur along the road by the Farm Institute in a flock of sparrows on Oct. 1. At Gay Head he added a white-throated sparrow and Cooper’s hawk.

On Oct. 2 I led a walk for Featherstone with Nancy Kingsley, Nancy Morris, Joe Kratkramer and Bob and Sylvia Weiss. I showed them the Aquinnah loop where we started at the Gay Head Cliffs and then around the circle. The best birds seen were merlin, greater yellowlegs, bay-breasted warbler, and white-crowned sparrow. In West Tisbury Lanny McDowell had 20 red-winged blackbirds arrive at his feeder. Luanne Johnson counted five bobolinks at Dogfish Bar in Aquinnah the same day.

Margaret Curtin and Nancy Weaver joined me, Flip Harrington, Lanny McDowell and Bob Shriber at Gay Head on Oct. 4. We spotted two brown thrashers, palm and Blackpoll warblers, indigo buntings, northern orioles and white-throated sparrows to name a few. The same day Warren Woessner added house wrens and Lincoln’s sparrows at Gay Head. Whit Manter spotted a Say’s phoebe at Pond View Farm.

On Oct. 5 Rob Culbert had a flock of three rose-breasted grosbeaks and two northern orioles blow through his yard. Laurie Walker and Katharine Colon birded Aquinnah and had a pine warbler and a clay-colored sparrow. They also spotted a belted kingfisher. Lanny McDowell and Bob Shriber found a mystery finch at Pond View Farm.

I met Bob Shriber at Gay Head on Oct. 6. We watched quite a dog fight between a northern harrier and probably a big female peregrine falcon. (Buddy Vanderhoop and I think it might have been a gyrfalcon but this is the wrong time of year.) Probably it was a small male northern harrier and a huge female peregrine. Bob and I also spotted a northern gannet, house wren, brown thrasher, Blackpoll warbler, indigo bunting and American redstart. Bob heard a dickcissel. Bob continued birding throughout the day and by the end of the day had counted two indigo buntings, eight peregrine falcons, three merlins, three Cooper’s hawks, two sharp-shinned and three red-tailed hawks and four turkey vultures.

Claudia Rogers had a great egret and nine greater yellowlegs at the Edgartown Lighthouse pond the same day.

Tammy Morris found a white homing pigeon at her feeder. She called Gus Ben David who took the bird and put it in with his flock. All’s well that ends well.


Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-627-4922 or e-mail to