Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Martha's Vineyard & Ma., September 2010 (1)
God Bless America
A third and final trip to the States this year, all fortunately dominated by birds. After New England in January / February and Florida in March, the majority of this visit was spent on Martha's Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast, ostensibly to attend the wedding celebrations of our good friends Meghan and Jonah.
With the previously described visit to Agnes following less than 24 hours later - and a couple of weeks back in Babylon having passed since - it seems like a long time ago, but the memories remain pleasantly fresh.
Eastern Phoebe in the garden
Lucky for us, we were invited to spend eleven days there and got to treat the beautiful, gingerbread house in the north-eastern town of Oak Bluffs as our own, coming and going as we pleased. Of the celebrations, wonderful people, and the newlyweds, more another time; of the birds, happy days.
But first a whirlwind 48 hours visiting the very lovely american clan in rural western Mass., and back to the family homestead out in the sticks. Having visited several times now for extended periods, it's not only a pleasure to be there but also a pleasure to enjoy the birds within a short walk of the house (and in the garden); woodland, farmland and orchards are within several minutes of the front door, and birding from the road is as good as it gets, with cars passing on average about every five or six years.
Broad-winged Hawks thermalling over the house
Time was naturally limited, but I managed to fit in sessions on both early mornings, and the area was loaded with activity. I've had innumerable memorable encounters there, but this was the first time I'd been back in peak migration season - hence, pleasantly overwhelmed by the density of migrants flitting through the trees.
Chestnut-sided Warbler just beyond the garden
Many were common species, and many others slipped through the net of combined jetlag, dense cover and clock-watching, but highlights included numerous Eastern Phoebes, Northern Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroats, ultra-close Cooper's, Broad-winged, Red-shouldered and Sharp-shinned Hawks, and two (as good as) new Dendroicas - Chestnut-sided and Black-throated Blue Warblers.
American Redstart & Carolina Wren
Onto the Vineyard a couple of days later (after a visit to the grand-folks en route in Yarmouthport, with Pine Warblers in the garden), via the ferry out of Wood's Hole on the southern coast of mainland Mass. The 45 minute, tumultuous crossing (strong north-easterlies, serious waves) provided Ospreys, a Common Tern, both Cormorant sp., Northern Harrier and Bank Swallows around the boat, as well as a group of Common Eiders as we approached the jetty.
Pine Warbler, Yarmouthport
Once we'd settled into the house, a battle plan was required. Knowing next to nothing about the island's ecology and habitats before arriving, and brief online research revealing vast expanses of protected interior national park (as well as sandy coastlines, rural farmland and freshwater and brackish lakes), the plan was pretty simple.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 21st
With our house situated on the southern outskirts of Oak Bluffs and within a stone's throw of the Atlantic, and being reliant on shank's pony for transport, a productive local patch had to be close by. Google maps had already raised hopes, with a coastal lagoon surrounded by a protected conservation area (looking very promising from above) apparently just a few minutes walk away.
Warbling Vireo, 21st
And so it came to pass - an initial exploration on the first evening revealed an almost ideal, undisturbed, easily-accessed mini-reserve beginning just half a km from the back door. With Farm Pond (a small brackish lake) between it and the ocean, my adopted patch for the following ten days hosted an undisturbed range of habitats including saltmarsh, overgrown gardens, wet meadows, mixed scrub and woodland. Bingo.
Even in the half-light with a gale blowing, it was easy to see the area's potential, and Marsh Wren and a Belted Kingfisher both showed well before the sun faded away. From then on, the routine became perfectly familiar - out of the house before dawn, pit-stopping at Mocha Mott's for fine takeaway coffee and bagels, breakfast en route, and into birds as the light broke through.
Common Yellowthroat & Prairie Warbler
Each morning's session lasted a good three hours or so, allowing close and prolonged scrutiny of the patch; not knowing what to expect was a thrill, and everything was a bonus. There were no breath-taking falls, but every day provided something new, and some very special experiences with birds.
Lark Sparrow, White-breasted Nuthatch & Eastern Towhee
Highlights on the 21st included a Wood Duck flushed at point-blank range from a small wooded pool, a late Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a Warbling Vireo, two Prairie Warblers, an American Redstart, a sprinkle of Yellowthroats, an Eastern Towhee, a Great Egret on the pond and one of the surprises of the trip - a Lark Sparrow, which I picked up within a flock of House Finches on a garden lawn by the pond.
Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawk and Grey Catbird
Commoner species regularly seen on the patch included Chickadees, White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Fish Crows, Carolina Wrens, Song and Savannah Sparrows, House Finches, Grey Catbirds, American Goldfinches, Blue Jays, American Robins, Tufted Titmice, Double-crested Cormorants, Canada Geese and Mallards, while American Herring, Laughing, Great Black-backed and Ring-billed Gulls, Eiders, Sanderlings, odd Gannets and Common Loons were reguarly along the shore.
An afternoon convertible cruise around the island courtesy of Charlie (Meghan's father) in warm sunshine and strong westerlies revealed the extent of protected and pristine habitat throughout, and included a stop at the picturesque south-western tip of the island Aquinnah, complete with crumbling cliffs and an epic panorama. Plenty of Turkey Vultures en route, and several Merlins - one of which performed perfectly for the camera.
The 22nd was again very windy, and by mid-morning, even warmer; the area was somewhat quieter, although at least five Eastern Phoebes and two Palm Warblers were fresh in alongside more expected species. The day's highlight was an incredible passage of Tree Swallows - what began yesterday as a steady flow became a constant flood, with several thousand passing low overhead within a couple of hours. A long jaunt into the pine woods and a full loop back along the coast road was quiet but for close-up, entertaining Ospreys and a Great Blue Heron on the pond. A Killdeer at dawn on the village green was one of the few wader species recorded.
Great Blue Heron & Killdeer
The 23rd dawned very warm and humid, with pre-dawn showers clearing to sunny skies by mid-morning and a light NE wind; I was hopeful the conditions had brought new arrivals, and immediately much more activity was evident. A sprinkling of Eastern Phoebes, Yellowthroats, Red-winged Blackbirds, American Redstarts and three Greater Yellowlegs over, a Belted Kingfisher on the jetty and a minimum of four Red-eyed Vireos in the scrub were all good value, but the highlight of the morning appeared at my feet.
Stood on the raised road running through the best area of habitat just west of the pond, I heard rustle very close by, and looked down, expecting maybe a rodent; amazingly, stood in the weeds within a metre of me, a Virginia Rail made direct eye-contact. Expecting the bird the be gone in seconds, I froze and waited; over the next few minutes, the bird alternated between feeding happily and apparently becoming even more curious, craning its neck and allowing me to crouch down next to it.
Much too close to photograph, I eventually withdrew a few metres to the other side of the track and fired off some shots. The noise of the shutter actually seemed to raise the birds curiosity further, and after a few more minutes, it walked out into the open towards me. Unfortunately a car then approached (a rare occurrence) and sensibly it disappeared into the swampy undergrowth, but it was one of those unique and intimate encounters that are hard to forget.
(Part 2 below)