Subspecies of birds are interesting. What is a subspecies, anyway? It is best to start with species, which is an individual that has common characteristics with others and can breed and produces offspring that are fertile and similar in looks. Now, a subspecies is an individual which has notably different features than its species, but can still breed and produce fertile offspring. However, subspecies characteristics are not sufficiently different to be classified as a unique species. The differences most commonly used to separate species and subspecies include size variations and plumage colorations.
Last weekend on Chappaquiddick a group of us spotted a very light sparrow feeding in the shrubs by Poucha Pond. They were very pale savannah sparrows with super pink bills and legs. What we were seeing are known as Ipswich sparrows, which are a subspecies of the savannah sparrows. Unlike the darker savannah sparrows that breed on the Vineyard, the Ipswich sparrows breed on Sable Island, Nova Scotia and spend their winters along the East Coast. Some ornithologists might think the Ipswich sparrows could be classified as a full species. It will take DNA work to determine if this is the case, so for the time being the Ipswich sparrow is a subspecies of the savannah sparrow.
A few older reports that slipped by me include those from Jeff Bernier, who was on a roll between Nov. 25 and 30. On Nov. 25 at Philbin Beach Jeff spotted a purple sandpiper, and two rafts of 12 to 15 harlequin ducks floating toward the Gay Head Cliffs. On Nov. 28 Jeff was at Katama and he spotted two common goldeneyes at Katama Point, a dunlin in winter plumage at Bluefish Point and an American kestrel over Katama Plains. The next day Jeff found three razorbills and a winter plumage red-throated loon in Vineyard Haven harbor and a peregrine falcon eyeing a group of gulls near Farm Pond in Oak Bluffs. Finally, he counted 17 surf scoters in Vineyard Haven harbor on Nov. 30.
The snow goose that Allan Keith spotted last week was still in Keith’s Field as of Dec. 9.
Jeff Bernier found six eastern bluebirds in the Katama fields on Dec. 8 and also an eastern meadowlark.
Bert Fischer spotted three eastern meadowlarks around the fields next to Squibnocket in Aquinnah on Dec. 14. And Andrea Hartman spotted three eastern bluebirds enjoying the day near the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury.
Nat Woodruff spotted a common goldeneye off East Chop on Dec. 11.
That same day I joined Lanny McDowell and Porter Turnbull for a morning of birding on Chappaquiddick. We were hoping to find the snowy owl. The best birds we spotted included an Iceland gull, northern gannets, razorbills, all three species of scoters, horned grebes, a red-necked grebe, common and red-throated loons, a flock of five Ipswich sparrows, ruddy turnstones and a northern harrier. We missed a snowy owl. As we left Chappy I headed straight home and Lanny and Porter went via Oak Bluffs — what should be on the breakwater of the second bridge but a snowy owl! Grrr: Susan once again was at wrong place at the right time!
The next day, Dec. 12, Mike Ditchfield spotted a snowy owl on Norton point and also took some great photos of a peregrine falcon, also on the Point. One wonders if we have one or two snowy owls on the Vineyard/Chappaquiddick this winter.
Dick Knight e-mailed that he had seen a flock of 20 to 30 pine grosbeaks on the Chappaquiddick side of Edgartown harbor on Dec. 12. I questioned him as we usually only see one or two pine grosbeaks a winter on the Vineyard and Chappaquiddick. I suggested that he might have seen house finches and he answered with a description of the birds he had seen. Most of the description could have been a house finch, but the important characteristics that made me think he was seeing something else were that the birds he saw were larger than house finches, had pale gray breasts and prominent wing bars. I shared Dick’s description with Lanny McDowell and Matt Pelikan and they suggested it would be more possible for the flock Dick observed to be white-winged crossbills. I hope other Chappy residents get a glimpse of these northern visitors and maybe even a photo!
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail to email@example.com. Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her Web site is vineyardbirds2.com.