Winged Sightings

People are not the only tourists attracted to Martha’s Vineyard in the fall. Members of the world’s bird population – some exotic, some familiar – make regular stops at the Island’s marshes, meadows, salty inlets, ponds, and woods on their way to warmer climes.

Look closely and you might be lucky enough to spot a rare red-footed falcon swooping overhead. Six thousand people checked out this Eurasian and African bird of prey that spent a few weeks in Katama in 2004 – the first time it set foot in North America. People still talk about that sighting, which was reported nationally, and it’s anybody’s guess what unique bird might show up on-Island this week, this month, or this year.

Bird watching is no obscure recreation taken up by oddballs. Not only has it grown very popular on Martha’s Vineyard, it has become one of the biggest hobbies in North America. Birding tours are a multi-million-dollar business worldwide, and our country’s 48-plus million birders are in the top rung of dollars spent nationwide on spectator sports – generating some $36 billion annually for the U.S. (according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys).

Thanks to its location as a coastal island and its abundance of protected conservation lands, Martha’s Vineyard is what birders call a hot spot, attracting large numbers of the winged world during a fall season that stretches from August into November. Because so many Islanders manage their land using good environmental practices, private Vineyard properties also beckon to birds. Some of those birds take up permanent residence, but because the Vineyard sits along the fall migration route for New England, even more make temporary visits during fall and early winter.

Why do so many Vineyarders enjoy birding? If you like the outdoors and wildlife, birds are relatively easy to find and identify. They are accessible, beautiful to look at – often with brilliant coloring – and magically airborne. Those are just the most obvious reasons.

Beside their innate beauty, a number of conditions make birds fun to watch. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of getting a close-up look, being in an unexpected place, or watching unusual behavior. Look carefully: A midwestern Henslow’s sparrow, with its distinctive brown and olive striping, might be mixed in with a flock of other types of the sparrow family that are more common here. The King Eider, a sea duck with a striking orange and red bill that you wouldn’t normally see on the Vineyard, may fly in when you’re not even expecting duck migration. For some birders, the fun comes in building a life list of birds sighted. For others it’s being the first to see a new arrival. (When it’s a first appearance, the birder can submit it to the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee and get credit for the sighting.)

When unusual species like the red-footed falcon visit the Vineyard from faraway places, viewers get a vicarious taste of travel. A black-chinned hummingbird that shows up at your feeder is rare and hard to tell apart from the more common ruby-throated variety. West Tisbury birder Lanny McDowell had the opportunity to hold one in his hand (after a professional had trapped it). “I actually opened my hand and watched it take off,” he says. What Vineyard birders say about the joys of birding, how they got into it, and how they go about tracking regular and unusual species provides a snapshot of a favorite Island outdoor pastime.

The aptly named Matt Pelikan of Oak Bluffs has built his life around the outdoors and writes birding and natural history articles for the Island’s newspapers (and this issue of the magazine, see page 24). Matt has worked as the Islands program director at the Nature Conservancy’s Vineyard Haven office for the past four years. If he sees an interesting bird, he’s out of his car in a nanosecond to take a look.

“One thing about being a serious birder is you’re always doing it,” he says. “It becomes a deeply ingrained mental process, an ontological state. I am rarely more than a few feet away from my binoculars. I even take them into stores with me – you never know what you might see walking across the parking lot. I get a lot of satisfaction from knowing about the birds. It’s a feeling of communion with the natural world.”

Like so many of the Island’s passionate birders, he has stories to tell, such as the time he sighted a gray kingbird; birder friend Pete Gilmore had spotted this handsome gray and white Floridian visitor near the Vanderhoop Homestead in Aquinnah and had called Matt to confirm the sighting.

“I hadn’t stopped the car before I saw it,” he says. “I didn’t even need binoculars. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” It was only the second state sighting, a record serious birders – as well as birding organizations like the American Birding Association – track.

A wash-ashore like Matt, Allan Keith calls his passion for birds “totally self- inflicted.” Allan spent years working on Wall Street and summering on the Vineyard before he and his wife moved permanently to Chilmark, in large part because of its abundance of birds. At thirteen, he was walking home from school in Brockton. “I saw a funny-looking bird in the brush, went home, and looked it up and have been doing it ever since.” The bird was the flashy black-and-white rose-breasted grosbeak, a species that also visits the Vineyard. He explains how identifying it ignited his lifelong love for birds.

“My father, Eldon Bradford, had a huge old tome, [John James Audubon’s] Birds of America, with a lot of natural history in it. That’s the book I used for a long time. I did not know that the grosbeak was in the finch family at the back of the book. I started at the beginning and saw all these remarkable birds, so that piqued my interest.”

As was the case with Allan, many kids are infected with bird fever at an age suited to pouring over encyclopedic guidebooks. Children’s programs that include bird identification can also ignite a lifelong hobby (for example, the Fern and Feather Camp at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown has produced a crop of natural scientists).

For Allan, opportunity and a love of birds intertwined into a lifetime commitment. The Chilmark farm bought by Allan’s parents provided abundant childhood birding opportunities, as did a summer job working for the Audubon Society in Maine. After Harvard Business School and the Army, Allan began work on a PhD in zoology at Yale, planning to specialize in ornithology. But his advisor, waterfowl expert Dillon Ripley, left to head the Smithsonian Institution. With no other bird experts in residence at Yale, Allan ended up working on Wall Street. But Allan has visited more than seventy-five countries on birding expeditions. “It’s the only kind of trip I take,” he says. During his honeymoon in 1964 on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, he developed a fascination with West Indian birds, and he has since co-authored three related books. New last year is the broader-reaching Island Life: A Catalogue of the Biodiversity on and Around Martha’s Vineyard, co-authored with plant taxonomist and Chilmark summer resident Dr. Stephen Spongberg – published by Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratories, it lists both flora and fauna.

Susan Whiting, of Chilmark, grew up on-Island and turned her love of birds into a business: With her husband, Flip Harrington, she takes birders to places like Costa Rica; and she’s co-written with Barbara Pesch the handbook for Island birds Vineyard Birds (originally printed in 1990 and updated in 2007). She got interested in birding as a child during World War II. At the time, she was living in West Tisbury with her mother and brother in the “Chicken Coop” on the Whiting Farm. Soo’s grandmother Emma Mayhew Whiting, who was an avid birder, lived next door. The more varieties of birds that arrived at her grandmother’s feeders, the more avian lore Soo absorbed at her grandmother’s breakfast table. Soo’s father, John Whiting, was a big duck hunter who would take Soo out at 4:30 a.m. in waders, so he could double his bag limit (the number of birds one hunter can shoot). Sitting with him in barrels dug into the marshes, she learned about Vineyard waterfowl like scaup and goldeneyes.

Soo goes out every morning in the fall to her favorite hot spot, the Gay Head Cliffs. In winter she heads to the Squibnocket parking lot or Sengekontacket for waterfowl. A number of factors explain why so many different species of birds end up at the Vineyard, according to Soo. A northwest wind that turns southerly may send them here. Hurricanes may blow them off course, or when they are young and inexperienced navigators, they may simply take a left turn instead of a right. The length of daylight and availability of food influence when they begin to migrate.

Soo has seen the makeup of the Vineyard’s bird population vary because of global climate change and an increase in bird feeders. “When I grew up, there were no cardinals, no Carolina wrens, no mockingbirds,” Soo says. “The overall number of birds has decreased through loss of habitat, and bird populations have moved farther north, changing which ones come here. Bird feeders have concentrated the birds who come and turned more people into bird watchers who report what they see.”

The decrease helps account for the excitement among bird enthusiasts when a rare bird arrives on-Island. Last fall, Soo was out with a couple of other birders and heard a weird scolding sound near the Gay Head Lighthouse.

“It didn’t make sense,” Soo says. “It didn’t look like anything we were familiar with. We scratched our heads, then realized it was a Bell’s vireo scold note.” They couldn’t get a clear view of it and couldn’t make it call, even though they played its song on an iPod. This four-inch flyer had never been seen on-Island before. But one sighting of an unusual bird will not confirm its appearance officially. The Massachusetts Avian Records Committee requires sightings by two individuals unless the first one comes with a photograph.

The two elements of birding Soo likes most are the camaraderie and the competition. “It’s a great way to meet people,” she says. “They provide backup.” One birder will call in others to look, and off-Islanders may want to add a “target bird” – one they haven’t seen yet – from the Island to their list of sightings.

“People always want to know what you’ve seen. Allan [Keith] is almost always the first person there, so you ask him what he’s seen. That way you can hone in on what’s around. You don’t want to be wrong, but you want to be the first one to call a sighting,” Soo says.

The same species can look different according to gender, the time of the year, or stages of maturation. Guidebook illustrations do not always look the same, so pointing out a bird you’ve found is a talent not everyone shares. Martha’s Vineyard chickadees sound different than those from other places.

West Tisbury artist Lanny McDowell has turned from painting to focus his camera increasingly on birds. As he and other birders can tell you, birding has its own lingo. “Hot days” are ones with good birding. “Melt birds” disappear into their habitat. “Working a bird” means making strange noises to get a bird to come out of cover. When you succeed, you’ve “bumped” it. Frequently sighted birds get nicknames: The yellow-rumped warbler is called a “butter butt,” a turkey vulture a “TV,” an English sparrow a “limey,” a Savannah sparrow a “savvy,” and a sandpiper a “peep” or “LBJ” (little brown job).

“The networking thing is almost international,” Lanny says. That’s thanks to the Internet, an incredibly fast way to spread the word. He has a website for his avian art, a birding blog, and a bird alert e-mail list that includes about seventy people. The Island has a telephone hot line, run by Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary. Bird sightings can also be reported to both Island newspapers. Between cell phones and text messaging, the news gets out in a couple of hours when a rare bird shows up. That was the case last winter when an ivory gull was spotted in Gloucester and Plymouth. By the time Lanny went off-Island to see this Arctic bird, between fifty and sixty other birders were already there. “I most likely will never see one again,” he explains. “That’s why I went.”

A dedicated birder knows that it’s important to watch birds regularly, whether or not there’s a unique one around. “You’re much more likely to spot a rare bird if you know what’s usual,” says Lanny. “Otherwise you lose your knack. Birds of a feather do not always flock together.”

Lanny tells the story of the time he heard a red-bellied woodpecker slam into a window at his house and land with a thud, stunned. It was just before a UPS driver showed up with a delivery, and Lanny went out with his camera to take a look. When the woodpecker recovered, it climbed up Lanny’s arm, providing a perfect photo op. Lanny handed the UPS driver his camera for shots of the bird as it played hide-and-seek, moving from his arm to his back, then his neck, as if he were a tree branch.

Land management consultant Robert Culbert, of Tisbury, looks at trends and patterns in bird populations, often doing bird surveys for landowners: A hundred-acre property will take him two and a half hours, stopping at different points to listen and record what he sees and hears. He interprets aerial photos, lists vegetation types, and looks at what’s missing, so he can make suggestions.

Like Soo Whiting, Rob offers bird walks – both in groups and as private tours, leaving from the head of the Lagoon near the Oak Bluffs pump station. Flyers in hotels, inns, and other public places, calendar listings, websites, and local TV spots advertise his Saturday morning, May-through-October walks. (They leave from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School at 9 a.m.)

He begins by asking his customers what they’d most like to see, then offers helpful pointers on how to identify different species and will toss in Vineyard history and geology when the occasion rises. Rob uses his ear and knowledge to spot birds only experienced birders will find on their own.

“When I show someone a scarlet tanager with its bright red body and jet black wings, you can almost see the jaws drop,” he says. “Birds are just such fascinating creatures with their bright colors and the challenge of finding them. I try on my walks to spread that enthusiasm.”

Robert Culbert’s suggestions to become a successful birder

1. Invest in a field guide like Sibley’s or Peterson’s – everybody has a favorite – and familiarize yourself with it. He advises using one specifically for the Eastern United States.

2. Go on bird walks with an expert and take a pair of binoculars you’re comfortable using. Take a peek through a more advanced birder’s spotting scope (small telescope) for a close-up look at your quarry, so you can see more detail.

3. Venture out at different times of the year, so you learn how the same bird can vary in looks and change according to their maturation stage. Hours in the field make for birding expertise.

4. Get to know common birds first. That way, you’ll recognize the unusual ones when they turn up. If you do see an unusual bird, check it out with an expert.

5. Participate in birding organizations to help build a network of like-minded enthusiasts.

6. And the old birding chestnut is to not wear white or bright colors, which make you more conspicuous. Like fishing, birding takes patience.