Unusual birds, rare birds or birds which are very similar to more commonly seen birds can be difficult to identify. There were two such sightings this week.
The first came from Barbara Almquist, who called the bird hotline to report that she had a Couch’s kingbird in her Edgartown backyard on August 17. I freaked out! Not only has there never been a Couch’s kingbird seen on the Vineyard, but, to my knowledge, there has never been one reported in the state. So I called Barbara and my first question was: Did you get a photo of the bird? Unfortunately she did not. We then talked and I asked questions about the color of the bird’s back, shape of tail and presence or absence of an eye stripe. After a lengthy discussion we concluded that what Barbara saw was probably an immature western kingbird and not a Couch’s kingbird.
I also suggested that Barbara purchase a newer field guide. This is a mantra that I have been spitting out for years. Yes, Peterson’s Field Guide is great and so is Audubon’s but they are dated and it is time to get with the times! There is new information on immatures, juveniles and distribution that help with tricky ID puzzles. Now I am thinking about it, the kingbird Barbara spotted might even be a hybrid. As I mentioned last week, Matt Pelikan found a reference to an apparent western/eastern kingbird hybrid found in Ontario, and given that a western kingbird had been hanging around the Vineyard late spring last year this could be an offspring. Who knows?
The second unusual sighting came from Rob Culbert on Sunday, August 21. Rob spotted a flock of terns on the oyster rafts at Red Beach in Lobsterville. This was his description of what he saw: “An exciting find — an arctic tern on the oyster rafts near Red Beach in Menemsha Pond this morning. In with the common terns and both laughing and ring-billed gulls. Good study of it — tail longer than wings, short legs (it was standing on the hard plastic edge of the raft in plain view), narrow white band between black cap and gray throat, and short blood red bill. Full breeding plumage. Binoculars gave me a close up view for careful study but my camera could not get anything recognizable.”
Rob was very helpful and sent out an e-mail to Vineyard birders so they might have a chance to see this rare tern. Arctic terns are difficult to distinguish from common terns, so having the two species together for comparison was a real cue. Warren Woessner drove up-Island after receiving Rob’s e-mail and scoped the oyster rafts. Unfortunately the tern had flown. Although arctic terns used to be an uncommon breeder on the Vineyard, there are no records of this elegant tern nesting on the Vineyard since the 1940s. The few times the arctic terns have graced our Island with their presence have been between June and August. Presently there are only four sites where arctic terns breed in Massachusetts, which is not surprising as Massachusetts is at the southern edge of its breeding range. Almost as soon as the young arctic terns fledge, the adults leave and head south for their long migratory flight to their winter haunts in the Antarctic and South Africa. The bird seen at Red Beach was undoubtedly a bird headed south.
Larry Hepler has been keeping a new type of yard list. He is compiling a list of the immature birds that visit his Quansoo yard. He can see quite a distance into a field and so can count the two immature red-tailed hawks that seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on a distant cedar tree. Along with the large number of “dickie” birds visiting the Hepler yard, Larry has also spotted an immature Cooper’s hawk. One bird has puzzled him and hopefully it will reappear so Larry can take a picture so we can determine whose offspring it is. His guess is a wren — stay tuned!
Steve Miller called to report two ruby-throated hummingbirds visiting his Edgartown yard. The hummingbirds must be beginning to head south.
Luanne Johnson sent an interesting video that appeared on one of the video cams she has set up to study the Vineyard’s otters. The scene was of three American crows arguing over a tennis ball that had washed up on the beach. We figure the crows must have thought it was a huge egg ripe for the eating. The yoke was on them.
Matt Pelikan posted an observation from the the Nature Conservancy’s Smith Preserve off Takemmy Trail. A group of eastern towhees, 25 strong, was gathered in a flock. The plumages were varied and as Matt commented some were wearing the sparrow-like plumages of the juveniles and others were partially molted into adult feathers. We agree that it was probably from two broods. This is a good sized group of towhees no matter what plumage.
Sarah Mayhew sent a stunning photo of a male American redstart she shot in her West Tisbury yard on August 21. Two days later she posted a photo of a huge flock of tree swallows over Black Point. Fall is coming!
On August 23 Flip Harrington, Warren Woessner, Lanny McDowell and I ventured to Mashacket Cove on Edgartown Great Pond. There was a nice selection of shorebirds on the mud flats including both greater and lesser yellowlegs, but our best bird was a single white-rumped sandpiper.
The next day, August 24, Luanne Johnson and I birded the South Beach side of Edgartown Great Pond and had a good sampling of shorebirds as well, including three piping plovers and several short-billed dowitchers (both of which we missed at Mashacket). We also spotted white-rumped sandpipers, three in all mixed in with the semipalmated and least sandpipers.
Hopefully hurricane Irene will not be a direct hit but her winds will bring birds from the south, so keep your eyes open for unusual birds.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her Web site is vineyardbirds2.com.