Adam deBettencourt sent us this e-mail while we were attending the festival in Florida: “I have observed what appears to be a conjunctivitis infection in both a male house finch and male American goldfinch that have been visiting my feeder in Chilmark. Has this been noted elsewhere on the Island? I have done some reading and research on the subject and am wondering if there is anything else I should do besides cleaning my feeders and feeding stations? Is there a risk of this infection being passed to other species that visit my feeder?”
Let’s start with a description from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology of what a bird looks like that has contracted the eye disease: “Infected birds have red, swollen, runny, or crusty eyes; in extreme cases the eyes become swollen shut or crusted over, and the birds become essentially blind. Birds in this condition obviously have trouble feeding. You might see them staying on the ground, under the feeder, trying to find seeds. If the infected bird dies, it is usually not from the conjunctivitis itself, but rather from starvation, exposure, or predation as a result of not being able to see.”
In answer, unfortunately yes, conjunctivitis has been seen in other parts of the Island. I have had both goldfinches and house finches with the disease. Conjunctivitis can be passed to other species that visit feeders that have not been properly cleaned. However, it appears that the only birds that have been affected are the members of the Fringillidae family. This includes Island resident and visiting American goldfinches, house and purple finches, pine siskins and the now rarely-seen evening and pine grosbeaks, red and white-winged crossbills, and common and hoary redpolls. There is no evidence that this disease will be passed to other feeder visitors such as sparrows, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches or members of the woodpecker family.
There are several suggestions for dealing with this issue. First, dispose of any dead birds in the trash, not the compost. There is no threat to humans from this bacterial avian conjunctivitis. Next, take down any tube feeders and wash them with a solution of one part bleach and nine parts water. Be sure to remove any food stuck in the openings. I find an old non-electric toothbrush an excellent tool for this. I have also put tube feeders through the dishwasher. Use the same nine-to-one bleach and water solution while washing your tray feeders. While you are waiting for the feeders to dry, get out a rake and scratch around the base of the feeder poles to get rid of moldy seed and bird droppings.
Finally, report any occurrence of conjunctivitis when you participate in the 15th annual Great Backyard Bird Count which is coming up Feb. 17 to Feb. 20. Simply tally birds for at least 15 minutes on any day of the count, then go to birdcount.org and enter the highest number of each species.
I owe an apology to Marie and Stan Mercier. I forgot that they had an elegant yellow-throated warbler at their Chilmark feeder in 2006!
Dick Brown of Edgartown watched a fairly tame, colorful chicken-like bird wandering around his house on Jan. 28. He had never seen this type of critter before and after checking the bird book, he discovered it was a chukar. This species of bird was introduced to the Vineyard by private groups interested in hunting. Chukars are originally from Eurasia and were introduced to the western U.S. in the 1930s by hunters.
Tara Whiting heard three American woodcocks calling in the fields of Whiting Farm in West Tisbury on Feb. 1. She also noted there was a large flock of eastern bluebirds in the fields and a sharp-shinned hawk near Parsonage Pond. On Feb. 4, Tara heard an American woodcock at Black Point in Chilmark.
Red-winged blackbirds are a big news item in the bird news this week. Matt Pelikan reported a flock at the Hoft Farm in Vineyard Haven on Feb. 8. Debbie Dean spotted a flock by Farm Pond in Oak Bluffs at dusk on Feb. 7. Then Penny Uhlendorf commented that she and Scott Stephens have had a flock of 49 at their Pilot Hill feeder all winter. So because of the warm winter, are the blackbirds coming out on a nice day from the swamps and thickets they have hung out in all winter, or are they early migrants? Matt Pelikan feels they are early migrants and I agree. Why? Because there are other indications that spring is earlier than usual.
Matt Pelikan had common grackles show up in his Oak Bluffs yard on Feb. 5, and heard mourning doves singing the next day. Penny Uhlendorf noted that as of Feb. 7 the red-winged blackbirds are now singing in the yard and she watched a male house finch feeding a female. This is a common practice for pair bonding before nesting. Susie Bowman heard song sparrows singing on Feb. 1, and Rob Culbert noted that American robins, song sparrows, northern cardinals and Carolina wrens were all singing in his Tisbury neighborhood on Feb. 8. Robin Gray spotted a female towhee in her Edgartown yard; is this bird a holdover from the winter or an early arrival?
Bert Fischer watched a peregrine falcon swooping over Squibnocket Pond on Feb. 6. Nat Woodruff sent a superb photograph of a belted kingfisher she took at Menemsha on the same day.
Ken Ivory and Pete Meleney joined Rob Culbert on Feb. 4 on an excursion to West Chop where they spotted harlequin and long-tailed ducks and both red-throated and common loons.
Michael Ditchfield heard both screech and great horned owls from his porch in Edgartown on Feb. 6, and on the next day he was able to take a photo of the ever-moving ruby-crowned kinglet in his yard.
Susie Bowman spotted two flocks totaling about four dozen cedar waxwings in Vineyard Haven on Feb. 1. Where were they during the Christmas Bird Count?
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail email@example.com. Susan B. Whiting is coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her Web site is vineyardbirds2.com.