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The Vinalhaven Sightings Report is organized and edited by Kirk Gentalen on behalf of Vinalhaven Land Trust and Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Out and about on Vinalhaven, MCHT steward Kirk Gentalen reports on what he and others have seen in their travels. Contributions of stories and photos are welcome, and can be sent to


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Welcome to the vinalhaven sightings report – November 30th, 2011
VLT, MCHT, KTG, + U – all my favorite letters are involved
“sparrows “

Highlights:  Mockingbird, Ipswich Sparrow,  Lapland Longspur, Boat rides – including a Color-marked Gull?, Goldeneye including Barrow’s, Horned Lark

Business: Happy Birthday Sofia!

Hope everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving!

Feeder Stations - Here's a special call out to those who have active feeder stations around the island. A few different stations have reported absences of routinely seen species - Blue Jays and Nuthatches to name two -  

Sightings: In town 

photo by pat lundholm

Feeder stations - Pat Lundholm had this Northern Mockingbird stake claim to her feeders for a least a portion of a day (11/4). Mockingbirds are (pretty much) an uncommon visitor to Vinalhaven, with this being the 6th (or so) sighting I've heard of in the last 7 years.

by p. lundhom
Mockingbirds are most famous for being the state bird of both Florida and Texas, where they certainly are numerous in numbers, but also states that harbor some of the most beautiful and unique birds in the U.S. (judgement). Their choice of state bird is more of a compliment to Mockingbirds than anything else.

They are regular on the mainland Christmas Bird Count, this is the first Mockingbird I've heard of for about a year and a half. Great sighting! Tell us whats going on at your feeders!

Around the island - lane's - had a really good Pine Siskin and American Goldfinch morning -

Soemthings different - in the last VSR we talked about the original “Big Three” fall songbirds that tend to fall “under the radar”– Snow Buntings, Horned Larks and American Pipits.  In retrospect probably should have named the group the “Big Five”, and included Lapland Longspur and Ipswich Sparrow.  The Sparrow and the Longspur (actually a type of sparrow)are not seen regularly (or ever really) where the Buntings, Larks, and Pipits are seen yearly.  They all favor similar habitats and to our extreme pleasure the last two entrees into the group both turned up since we last wrote. Both are Vinalhaven VNMs, which certainly don’t happen every day. Here we go.

aware, but not threatened
 State Beach - Ipswich Sparrow- VSR devotees will recall the report a few reports back that Patience Chamberlin reported an “Ipswich Sparrow” at State Beach. (11/15) A trip to State Beach to scan for (and find 8) Horned Larks was interrupted as the very same (assumed) Ipswich Sparrow Patience reported as it popped into view and actually let me get a few shots of it.  

Many questions arise with an Ipswich sparrow sighting like –1. What the hell is an Ipswich Sparrow?and  2. why should I give a scat about their deal? Well, just like with eiders and ash-throated flycatchers, there’s a lot more going on with Ipswich sparrows then meets the eye. You can be the judge about if these guys deserve to be given a shat about.

things are looking up
Baseline info on Ipswich sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps)-  subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis ), breeds (pretty much) exclusively on Sable Island, Nova  Scotia, where anywhere from 1000 to 6000 pairs (depending on your source) breed each year. (a handful   breed on the “Mainland” Nova Scotia with local Savannah Sparrows, mixxing the genes fresh so to speak).  and winter along North America’s Atlantic Coast, Nova Scotia south . Their preferred habitat and can be found along shoreline, dunes, along the wrack-line. .

point reyes bathing - classic savannah sparrow look
stock photo

3 . whats a Savannah Sparrow and what’s the diff(erence)? Well..

Here are a couple stock photos of mine from Point Reyes National Seashore and Homer Alaska that show more traditional appearances. Savannah Sparrows are fairly common breeders on grassy islands along our stretch of coast.

homer singing
stock photo

Here's what the wacky folks at the “planet ispwich : A bridge between the Ipswiches of the world” website had to say about the The Ipswich Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps)
"Initially thought of as a separate species, modern DNA testing now shows that the Ipswich Sparrow is in fact a subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis). The two subspecies do sometimes interbreed. The Ipswich Sparrow now has the scientific name Passerculus sandwichensis princeps.
The Ipswich Sparrow is paler & larger than the Savannah Sparrow, with light grey plumage, grey-brown back & narrow pale brown streaks on a white breast. In in spring & summer they develop a yellow stripe above the eye. Males & females are similar in appearance.
Sable Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, is the Ipswich Sparrow's main breeding ground, with an estimated population of around six thousand. Nesting on heaths or beach dunes, some birds remain on Sable Island during the winter, while others migrate south down the Atlantic seaboard.
Due to erosion of their habitat & human disturbance, the status of the Ipswich Sparrow is classified as vulnerable."  
 “In addition to their larger size and paler plumage (clearly adapted to their dune-grass habitat), "Ipswich Sparrows" migrate earlier in spring and later in fall, have more successive broods (three routinely and occasionally four, compared with two routinely among mainland birds) and tend to be more frequently polygynous (males often with two, and occasionally more, females in their territories).”
 Got it?

4.       Why “Ipswich”?

More from the website “Planet Ipswich : A bridge between the Ipswiches of the world” (…

“First identified in 1868, the name comes from the fact that the discoverer, C J Maynard, shot one on the beach at Ipswich, Massachusetts. Initially misidentified as Baird's Sparrow, Maynard later  (1872) recognised it as a new species &  gave it the latin name Passerculus princeps, although it also seems to have been known by some as Ammodramus princeps maynard (see Jonathan Dwight's "The Ipswich Sparrow & it's summer home" 1895).”  Kinda makes you wish the species was first spotted in Athol, Mass.
nice habitat

5.       What’s a “Subspecies”?

“A species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.  While in many cases this definition is adequate, more precise or differing measures are often used, such as similarity of DNA, morphology or ecological niche. Presence of specific locally adapted traits may further subdivide species into subspecies”. Simply stated by Wikipedia. (aren’t I hip?).

6.       What’s a Sable Island, Nova Scotia?

“…it lies about 180 miles east of Halifax, Nova Scotia, near the edge of the continental shelf and is the only emerged part left of an extensive archipelago which existed on the shelf during the last glaciations.”

Whatsmore…”Sable Island, known as the graveyard of the Atlantic, may be a sailor's worst nightmare but for the wildlife that call the island home, Sable is an island paradise” Sable has the largest concentration of Grey Seals in the world , as each winter 60,000 congregate along sable’s beautiful beaches and sexy dunes to procreate. (i lwould love to see that!)

Historically – “In 1801 the Canadian government limited access to Sable Island in order to stop the plundering of hundreds of shipwrecks that lie in the waters surrounding the island. By doing this they also created a wildlife haven on this small island that is located 300 kilometers south east of Halifax, Nova Scotia”.

So it’s this big ol’ sand bar out in the middle of nowhere, happening with wildlife and isolated enough to allow a little island biogeography (my favorite kind of biogeography) to go down. A species adapting to conditions on the sand bar, bigger, lighter, breaking away(?), and on its way to speciation, as some folks argue it may be already  “I wish they would split them so people would pay more attention to them” . The mixing with the Nova Scotia locals apparently is a stumbling block to species status. and DNA testing. "i heard the verdict is still out on science".

habitat for most of the big 5
“A few "Ipswich Sparrows" can be found in most summers mated with mainland birds in the coastal dunes of Halifax County.” “birds of nova scotia, nova scotia government website.

anyway you look at it, a cool visitor to our island Paradise from another island paradise a little bit further out to sea!

Lapland Longspur - (11/29) - Basin Marsh - i came across this guy while trying to maneuver into position for some Barrow's Goldeneye video (never did get that video). The Longspur was hanging in the grasses surrounding the marshy pond (i used to know the fancy term for these) and seemed flighty the first 2 times i saw him (wouldn't have seen him if he wasn't flighty), but then on the 3rd go he got so comfortable he was almost too close for photos (hate it when that happens) .This is the first I've seen on Vinalhaven, but from looking at the habitat, i imagine lots (nice word) might pass thru each year and chances are they would go unnoticed. An "uncommon" species in Maine at this time of the year, Lapland Longspurs are actually an abundant species in the right terrain - and that terrain is the Arctic Tundra. Let's get some perspective..(with some help from "the sparrows of the United States and Canada" Rising, James, page 252 - awesome book, awesome page!). 

is that your longspur, or are you just happy to see me?
long nail on hind toe gives name
"The Lapland Longspur is generally the commonest bird of the high Arctic where it can be found in a variety of tundra habitats"

"In migration and winter, the species characteristically forms large flocks, sometimes apparentrly over a million individuals"

"if one moves slowly, one can often appreaoch the flock closely, and sometimes walk into it."

"the longspurs are, nonetheless, surprisingly difficult to see on the ground".

"especially in the east, where they are not particularly common, L. L. are often found with pipits, Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings, although Longspurs generally stay together in these mixed flocks."

Alright, so this was a solo individual (from what i could tell) who's tameness might have led me to wonder how healthy of a bird this was. It macked on seeds continually thru a 10 minute session of a distance of maybe 20 ft. Longspur clearly visible. even got to tape it preening.

Sounds like an abundant species for north america (sometimes flocks number a million? come on!) that sticks to the heartland, and the arctic. Soemwhere i read they are especially common where "Winter wheat" is grown. I've never had a dinner conversation about them before. and even this was a quick one.

Anyway, the Basin marsh keeps pumping out impressive birds that have not been documented in many (or any) place else on the island. Here's the people side of things....

Linnaeus himself named the Lapland Longspur (Fringilla lapponica) in the 10th edition (truly the best edition at the time) of Systema Naturae, in 1758. Linnaeus had done field work in Lapland early in his career and certainly was familiar with them from the expereince. it is not known if this was before or after dancing was forbidden in Lapland.

For Audubon, it was a different experience that 1819, February morning in Kentucky. He would later write " I saw immense flocks scattered over the open grounds pn the elevated grassy banks of the Ohio. Having my gun with me, as usual, i procured more than sixty in a few minutes...Although in rather poor condition we found them excellent eating." Gotta love Audubon - called it like he shot it.

anyway, it was a bonus to have such a session with the Longspur, by far the best i've had on the east coast, and i don't expect to have it repeated again anytime soon. appreciate these kind of sessions differnetly.
Add caption

Ferry Boat Rides – (11/19) – It’s getting on to be my favorite time of the year to ride the ferry, Nov/Dec trips can be loaded with birds while being somewhat comfortable outside – especially when compared to February trips. Anyway, things are just starting up, get on the boat and ride!

i am red and i am in the middle of this picture
for most trips many (40+) Common Loons, Gannets, and Black-legged Kittiwakes on almost every boat (42 count on the 2:45pm sunday, 100+ Kittiwakes on the 19th) are standard..

an odd sighting on the 19th was a red-colored Herring Gull. no conclusion has been reached on the cause, wheather for research or for (painting balling) fun,    

anyway, back in the day of prehistoric research methods scientists would color dye gulls to monitor movements and habits. i've only seen the posters they'd put up about calling in painted gulls. i'm sure having bright colors painted on has little to no impact of the bird's well being. if paint it would congeel the feathers and be potentially harmful as it would limit insulation to a certain extent. anyway, we'll keep you posted if anything develops.

reimer, dee in warren saw a similarly colored gull in Rockland Habor for a single day this summer, only the paint was orange.

we also had a purple sandpiper try to land in the boat.

Ducks - lots of em! Red-breasted Mergansers are coming out of "eclipse" plummage as we speak...Hooded Mergansers flood Carvers Pond, Common Goldeneye are starting to show up and even a Barrow's was seen in the Basin yesterday (11/29) .... All 3 scoters seen in the reach... and what feels like a bomber year for bufflehead - a few days of over 100 Bufflehead just from lane', state beach and the basin. thats a lot of bufflehead. here's some with a common goldeneye in the mix...Long-taields are everywhere

this guitar is pretty fun
Leif - (11/28) - it was bound to happen sooner than later - but today my not quite 3 year old boy corrected me on a fungus identification and he was right. it made no difference that he knows 3 species of fungus really well.

up at the turbines leif was rockin' out with his dump guitar when i spotted a fungus on a small log nearby. it looked at first to be the edge of a gilled polypore and when i quickly said that leif chimed in " i think its an orange jelly". it was of course. kids today!

and on a windy day at lane's. he was digging his fan. a little too close at that. he laughs whole-heartedly when he watches this video...