It was a small group of birders from the Chilmark Community Center that met Tuesday morning for the weekly bird walk. Luckily Lanny McDowell came along bearing his camera as well as his binoculars. The flats at Quansoo were covered with chattering shorebirds. It was difficult to determine which species were the most abundant; least sandpipers, semipalmated plovers or semipalmated sandpipers. My vote was for least sandpipers, they were everywhere. Small groups of short-billed dowitchers wandered in the shallow water probing their long bills with a sewing machine needle action. They looked huge in comparison to the smaller sandpipers especially in the fog. Then a distinct and different call was heard, one low and then another overhead. Lanny and I both said “whimbrel” and looked up to see this large shorebird flying away. A couple of us were able to see its long down-curved bill — unfortunately it did not return for a repeat performance.
The variety of shorebirds changed a bit as we headed east towards the opening, or cut. A few black-bellied plovers appeared, already lacking their strong black bellies as they molt into their pale winter plumage. A pair of American oystercatchers was taking a morning snooze on the dry sand away from the water’s edge. A flock of “headless” sandpipers, also on the dry sand, turned into sanderlings when one lifted a sleepy head. This group was probably resting up after a long flight down from its nesting grounds in the tundra. Then we spotted a couple of piping plovers running after semipalmated plovers. It was a good study as the markings on each piping plover were a bit different. One had a two-toned bill, orange at the base and black at the tip with a fairly strong gray collar marking. The other had an all-black bill and just a shadow of a collar; the first, an adult, the second, an immature.
Two long-legged waders arrived. They sported electric yellow legs. At first glance I thought they were greater yellowlegs as that is the common yellowlegs seen on salt flats. Lanny and I proceeded to describe the field marks of the greater and lesser yellowlegs to the group and slowly, as I spoke and observed, I reckoned I was wrong; the bill was too short and straight, plus the head was too small for a greater yellowlegs. Lanny took a series of photographs to look at later on the computer so that we could spend more time making sure our identification was correct. Glad he came along!
The photographs were put on “the big screen” and much to our surprise we had one of each, a greater and a lesser yellowlegs. Many years ago I had the opportunity to bird with Ed Chalif, who led the Chilmark Community Center walks lo these many years ago. Ed used the length of the leg from the knee to the foot as a way to differentiate between the greater and lesser yellowlegs. If the bill was the same length as the knee to the foot it was a greater, if shorter it was a lesser. I had trouble with that as the birds were usually in the water with part of their legs submerged. So I use the head; if the bill is longer than the head from front to back it is a greater, if shorter it is a lesser. Other finer points to separate the two include a finer, thinner and straighter bill on the lesser yellowlegs. The greater yellowlegs is much more active, it races around grabbing food, while the lesser yellowlegs delicately picks at its food. Guess I am a greater yellowlegs!
In 24 hours the Island this week lost two very special Vineyard elders, Jane Newhall and Ozzie Fischer. These two people had soft spots in their hearts for animals, Jane for dogs and Ozzie for all things in nature but particularly birds. Jane and Ozzie were loved by many and will be sorely missed.
I would on occasion get a call from Ozzie Fischer saying, “Susan, you better come up here, there is a bird I don’t know.” I would drive up to Beetlebung Corner and creep in the backdoor so as not to scare the birds off the myriad feeders Ozzie had in his front yard. I would settle down at the kitchen table with Ozzie, who would proceed to show me his notebook in which he listed the birds he saw daily. Then the bird in question would appear and we would figure out what it was. The last time I received such a call was on November 5 of last fall. Ozzie called to say there was a very late-staying hummingbird at his feeder and he wasn’t sure it was a ruby-throated hummingbird. Flip Harrington, Lanny McDowell with camera in hand, and I all went to Ozzie’s. Lanny and Flip posted themselves outside and I went into the warm kitchen with Oz. The hummingbird did appear. We all saw it and Lanny took photos. The decision was an immature or female ruby-throated hummingbird. I will miss those calls!
Whimbrels have arrived. Liz Baldwin spotted one at Oyster Pond on July 13, Page Rogers and Ann Deitrich observed two on the flats at Squibnocket on July 25. The Chilmark Community Center group, Lanny McDowell and I saw one at Quansoo the same day.
The same day Bill Lee heard a bobwhite calling on the Squibnocket side of his Greenhouse Lane property in Chilmark. Page Rogers and Ann Dietrich heard a bobwhite from the Squibnocket parking lot the same day, probably the same individual.
On July 17 Ed Barrett flushed a barn owl while he was mowing the fields behind Bill Lee’s house. Then on July 21 Bill’s son and granddaughter saw the owl fly across South Road and the following morning at 2:45 a.m. Bill heard the barn owl calling.
Black-crowned night herons are breeding on-Island in several places. Caitlin Jones spotted an adult at Deep Bottom on July 22 and two days later Ginny Jones found an immature black-crowned night heron in the same area. John Wightman flushed a flock of black-crowned night herons by the Menemsha Coast Guard Station on July 25. Page Rogers and Ann Deitrich spotted one adult and one immature black-crowned night heron on Squibnocket Pond on July 25. They also spotted two green herons and a belted kingfisher and heard an ovenbird.
Laurie Walker, Janet Holladay, Susan Christman and Katherine Colon found both common and least terns, four great egrets and one snowy egret in the Lobsterville marshes on July 17. Bill Lee spotted one great egret in the same marsh on July 24.
Carla Cooper has a great-crested flycatcher nesting in her back yard in Katama and she recently heard a ring-necked pheasant by Slough Cove.
Tim Leland called to say after four to five years of not seeing swallows around Wasque Point on Chappaquiddick, they are back. He counted 15 barn swallows loafing on his roof on July 20.
Allan Keith found a little blue heron at Black Point while looking at butterflies on July 17.
Bill Lee, Flip Harrington and I birded Quansoo on July 21. We counted 12 piping plovers, and many semipalmated plovers and sandpipers. Least sandpipers, short-billed dowitchers and one greater yellowlegs were also found. Our best bird was one red knot.
Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds 2. Her Web site is vineyardbirds2.com.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.