Category Archives: Birds

Birds on Nantucket

Black-winged Redbird – Bird of Mystery?

Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

If you are interested in birds and have a bird book, this is a bird that whets your appetite for sight. The pictures are so stunning you can’t wait to actually experience this bird for yourself. Alas it’s not an easy feat. Seeing such intense color spring from your bird book it’s hard to imagine these birds can hide, and yet they do so successfully.

Strangely, non-birders seem to have better luck with them than the rest of us. I hear all to often from wide-eyed friends, “I had a Scarlet Tanager fly across the “Sconset Road in front of the car!” Or perhaps it would be in their backyard or in the Japonica Bush. Sometimes a heavy rain washes insects from the trees and people observe flocks of tanagers feeding on the lawn. Another story tells about them following a plow, catching the bugs that are stirred up. What an amazing sight this would be, but I’ve never seen it. Yes, this is a bird that almost everyone knows by name and it’s an interesting name at that.

Both the word “tanager” and the Genus name for this bird, Piranga, are taken from South American Indian names for these birds. This brings us a subtle message since so many of our bird names originate from Greek or Latin. Like hummingbirds, tanagers are a “New World” family. There are over 200 species and almost all of them exist exclusively in the tropics.

Many species are “drop-dead gorgeous” birds, their colors not just painted on, but radiating out from their bodies. People naming them grasp for extraordinary terms, like “flame-colored,” “glistening green,” “crimson-backed,” or “diademed.” Indeed if you are fortunate enough to see one you immediately get the feeling it must have escaped from an exotic collection because there’s no way it should exist here in New England.

To some extent this is a very appropriate feeling. Our tanagers, and we might see three species here on Nantucket, are only in the U.S. in the summer months. During the winter, Central America is not far enough south for them. No, they must head well into South America to mix with other species of their ilk. They are known as “trans-Gulf” migrants, flying across the Gulf of Mexico rather than taking the land route around.

One lovely May morning a few years ago Nantucket’s Sunday morning birders were thrilled to have a male Scarlet Tanager perform for them in a just-budding tree at the Lily Pond. In 50 years of birding this was the best look I’ve ever gotten and here some of the birders experienced it on their first trip out!

Scarlet Tanagers are smaller than a robin, with jet-black wings and a thick whitish bill. Roger Tory Peterson describes the males as “Flaming scarlet.” Female tanagers are hugely different, green above fading to yellow below. And here’s the rub for you who are now anticipating going out and seeing this bird. In autumn, all tanagers don these yellow and green colors. For a short time the males are splotched with both red and green, thoroughly confusing a new birder. The species name for this “black-winged redbird” is olivacea, olive-colored, and may indicate that the first specimens were in fall plumage. Also, Piranga rubra, the “red tanager,” had already been used for the Summer Tanager.

For nesting, Scarlet Tanagers choose oak forests. High in these leafy realms they spend their summers, slowly and methodically moving from leaf to leaf, removing every insect they find. Their call note, a striking “chip-burrr,” or their rapid song, like a robin with a sore throat, tantalizes birders below. You know they are up there but they are hard to see.

On Nantucket they migrate rapidly through in May, perhaps into early June. Some years we hear them singing in the Hidden Forest and hope they will nest but it’s never been proved. In the mainland’s hardwood forests they build their simple nests, 20 feet up, and typically well out on a horizontal branch away from the trunk. After the four eggs hatch, the Beau Brummel males quickly lose interest and Mama Tanager finishes raising the next generation.

In August we often observe the red and green males migrating south across our island. In September through mid-October, Scarlet Tanagers are common here but alas, they are all green and yellow and tricky to see. Listen for the “Chip-burrr” call note and then track them down. If you see a tanager in November, it is more likely a bewildered Western Tanager, a very striking Rocky Mountain bird that sometimes migrates east instead of south. They have white wingbars and are easily confused with the young Baltimore Orioles that also hang around into early winter. Birding on Nantucket is never dull.

Ken Blackshaw is the author of more than ten books focusing mainly on natural history subjects. He writes the weekly bird column for the Nantucket Independent, and has just published Volume Three of his “A Year of Birding Nantucket” series. George C. West creates illustrations for these articles. Originally published in the Nantucket Independent, August 18, 2006.


Birds on Nantucket

Tangling with the Towhees
By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

At age 12, I was prowling the scrub oaks between the airport and Surfside, and was suddenly confronted with a bird that just dazzled me. It was atop an oak and singing away, sort of a three syllable call with the last note strung out and higher. When you are a new birder, almost every bird can be a challenge to identify. This bird was showing mainly black since it was facing away. Then it turned a little sideways and I could see a rusty brown color below the wing and I’m thinking ‘robin.’ But even then I knew robins don’t sing like that. Then it turned a little further and I realized the rusty color didn’t go all the way across the breast. No, the center of the breast was white. I spent a long time with my old Roger Tory Peterson bird guide before I found the Rufous-sided Towhee toward the back of the book.

Many of you may be in the same boat. No one tells you about towhees, and yet here on Nantucket they dominate the scrub oak habitat throughout the summer. By early October, many of our summer towhees, now officially named Eastern Towhees, have left, but huge numbers of their cousins from farther north are passing through.

Towhees are a group of species that have undergone many splits and renames during my 50 years with them. Here in the northeast, they were known as Red-eyed Towhees for a while when the powers that be decided that the towhees with white eyes down in Florida were actually a separate species. Eye color is not the first thing the average observer notices, but if you are in southern Florida and you see an Eastern Towhee, that white eye jumps out at you and it’s easy to understand why they were considered a separate species. Other towhee species now recognized include the Spotted Towhee and Green-tailed Towhee, which are found in Colorado and three species of rather brown towhees seen in the southwestern deserts.

Towhees love to feed on the ground and will seldom come up to a feeder. I see them hopping along under my feeders Ð very energetically. Before they take a hop, one sees an almost psychedelic flash of brilliant white from the corners of their jet-black tails. Female Towhees follow the same color pattern as the males except the black is replaced by a rich chocolate brown color.

Towhees are members of the finch family, characterized by their thick, seed-cracking bills. Other finches include cardinals, grosbeaks and all of the sparrows. The power of these bills is demonstrated well by how finches handle sunflower seeds. A tiny goldfinch can dissemble a sunflower seed with ease while huge Blue Jays have to wedge them into bark and bang away at them to open them up.

Towhees are also industrious scratchers. Often when hiking along the bike path, you may hear the sounds of scrub oak leaves being tossed around and this is your first clue there is a Towhee around. If you can actually approach without frightening them away, you will see them tossing leaves behind them so vigorously they look almost like burrowing dogs. This is how they find breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 70% seeds and 30% insect matter.

Even though our Towhees are not singing now, they are still vocal. The air often rings with the sound of their nasal ‘chewink call notes. This is the colloquial name many folks call them. When they arrive back here in early May, they immediately set up territory and mark it with their exuberant song ‘Drink your Teaeeeeeee’. This is the most typical pattern although you’ll hear some get stuck on just ‘Drink your’ or others that add a bunch of syllables on the front so you get something like ‘Drink up all of your Teaeeeeeee’. It is not unusual to have five or six males all within earshot of one another, defining their territorial presence.

Towhees are common on Nantucket through the middle of October and then taper off and become very difficult to find through the winter. Their retiring habits complicate matters. Sometimes during a bleak January day it seems like life is completely removed from the scrub oak landscape. A birder will make a squeaking sound to call in birds and the ‘chewink’ sound will respond from deep in the tangles. Often that is the only sign you will get that Towhees are hanging in there, but it is enough, reminding us that in a few months we will be hearing ‘Drink your Teaeeeeeee’ again.

Ken Blackshaw is the author of more than ten books focusing mainly on natural history subjects. He writes the weekly bird column for the Nantucket Independent, and has just published Volume Three of his “A Year of Birding Nantucket” series.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

Check out the ‘Birding Nantucket’ series at:

Originally published in the Nantucket Independent Ð October 3, 2003

Birds on Nantucket

The Halcyon Birds
By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

There it was, sitting on the phone wire near the Life Saving Museum Ð an odd-looking bird Ð seemed to be all head. Then with an unnerving rattling sound it sprang into the air and dove headfirst into the water, emerging with a fish draped on either side of its beak. It flew off with its prize and the Sunday morning birders did their Ôhigh fivesÕ and spiked their binoculars. Well that may be a slight overstatement, but itÕs always a treat to see a Belted Kingfisher.

This is a bird that is watched closely by environmentalists as an indicator of how things are going. Since it eats virtually nothing but fish, it is perched at the top of a food chain. That is, it eats things that eat other things, etc. So any poison in the environment is concentrated in them. One of the reasons the Osprey population crashed in the 60s was due to their also being at the top of a food chain and DDT did them in.

Kingfishers are part of an interesting family of birds. IÕve seen them all over the world and they are some of the most colorful. We would watch the Common Kingfishers in Taiwan busily working the areas around the rice paddies, a charming flash of iridescent blue and green as they disappeared into their burrows just above the water.

In Australia it was exciting to hear the maniacal laughter of a giant member of this family that lives in the forest, consuming lizards and snakes. It is the Kookaburra, an enchanting bird. I remember we used to sing a song about them in summer camp.

The Belted Kingfisher is the only representative of this family in the eastern U.S. It is about the size of a blue jay but seems larger because of its big shaggy head. The back and head are slate blue with a blue band across the white upper belly. This is another species where the female is the more colorful. She has an additional rust-colored band below the blue one.

The Latin name, Ceryle alcyon, gives fascinating insight into this familyÕs reputation amongst humans. Both names come from the Greek, Ceryle meaning ÔseabirdÕ and Alcyon, the name of a woman in Greek legend who was so grieved for her drowned husband, Ceryx, that the gods changed them both into kingfishers. So alcyon actually means kingfisher and is another form of the word Ôhalcyon.Õ People believed that kingfishers had the power to calm the wind and the waves. Halcyon days are the supremely calm days experienced near the winter solstice when the kingfishers were thought to nest on the water.

Being a fish-eating bird, there is always water nearby when you see a kingfisher, but even the smallest stream seems to attract them. Often they will hover in the air before plunging down on an unsuspecting fish. Actually this is a much trickier feat than you might realize because when you look in water, things arenÕt actually as they appear.

Due to waterÕs prismatic effect, objects arenÕt where you think they are. Baby kingfishers have to be taught how to catch fish. Mother kingfishers use a sort of on-the-job training. TheyÕll bring a fish to the hungry youngster but not actually pass it over. Instead she drops it in the water beneath them so that the hungry bird has to dive for it. Generally the first dives are unsuccessful, but after a few tries they learn.

I mentioned earlier that kingfishers live in burrows. Strange to say, they dig these out with beak and feet, usually at least five feet into a bank but sometimes as much as 15. One mate goes in at a time digging and pushing the dirt behind it. Then the other goes in and finishes pushing out the dirt and digs some more. They keep alternating until the nest cavity is complete. They nest in the sandy banks around Nantucket in such places as Coskata and along the south shore.

Belted Kingfishers can be found year Ôround on Nantucket although they may disappear in severe winters. We have seen them on three-quarters of our Christmas Bird Counts with a high of six. They are most common during spring and fall migration. In 2005, the summer breeding population seemed to be missing. Was there too much pesticide on Nantucket?

So how do you find a kingfisher? Learn the call! Roger Tory Peterson says it sounds like a bunch of bones rattling in a mayonnaise jar. I think a pickle jar would do as well, but imagine that sound and you have it. Kingfishers are very vocal and they seldom take off without making that rattle. Peterson also comments on the flight style looking like they are always changing gears. They row along, then suddenly change to a faster pitch, then back again.

Watch them hover, dive, fly off with prey, bash it senseless on a branch, and then swallow it. Then try and equate that with the legend that says they can calm the winds and water. Perhaps it is that startling rattle that quiets the elements! Your guess is as good as mine.

Ken Blackshaw is the author of more than ten books focusing mainly on natural history subjects. He writes the weekly bird column for the Nantucket Independent, and has just published Volume Three of his “A Year of Birding Nantucket” series.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

Check out the ‘Birding Nantucket’ series at:

Originally published in the Nantucket Independent Ð July 29, 2005

The Black Crowned Night Heron on Nantucket

A ‘Wok’ on the Wild Side
By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

My grandmother always called them ‘Woks.’ “There goes a ‘Wok,'” she would say, and I learned to play back the tape in my mind and think of the harsh sound we had just heard. We lived at 3 Chestnut Street then and we’d hear them flying over as it was getting dark in the evening.

It was many years before I was able to actually associate the bird with that sound. My mother had a black and white drawing, done by Ruth Haviland Sutton, showing some different-looking, black and white birds, standing in the cattails near a wooden bridge with white railings. As I entered my early teens, I found these were Black-crowned Night-Herons and their call was one of the first I learned.

Riding my bike out Madaket Road, I’d find them posed like sentinels along the edge of the rushes on Long Pond, near the First Bridge. These birds are part of the heron family, but night-herons are different than the typical heron. As the name indicates, they favor darkness. Actually ‘crepuscular’ is the word that describes their habits, meaning a creature that is most active in the twilight. During the day, they often are seen resting at the edge of the marsh.

Linnaeus himself, gave them their Latin name, Nycticorax nycticorax, which translates to ‘night crow.’ It’s possible that the ‘wok’ call reminded him of a crow going over. It also gives us a clue to the worldwide distribution of this species. Carl Linnaeus, who developed the scientific naming system for all life forms back in the 1700’s, lived in Europe. So, Black-crowned Night-Herons are not just found here. They are among the most widespread of birds, being found on all continents except Australia and Antarctica.

Nantucket’s earliest records for this bird go back to William Brewster’s notes from 1874 where he refers to 100 pairs nesting near the north head of Long Pond. Edith Andrews found only 25 to 30 pairs when researching for her 1948 book, and that number seems to have persisted today. There is also a rookery in the Quaise area.

However this is nothing compared with the numbers of night-herons found in the Sandy Neck nesting area over on the Cape, which has been estimated at 2,000 pairs. This rookery has been studied for over 100 years, and the birds have persisted, even though they were ‘shot out’ several times by local ‘sportsmen.’ Unfortunately, we have the words of John James Audubon himself, who pointed out that, “The young are quite as good for eating as those of the common pigeon, being tender, juicy, and fat, with very little of the fishy taste of many birds which, like them, feed on fishes and reptiles.” I must confess, I would never have thought this to be a game bird until I started researching this article!

In flight, these birds do not make you think of herons. Actually we’ve had them reported as owls. Nantucket birders scurried to the Stop & Shop parking lot late one fall, looking for the flock of owls reported flying toward the cricks near sunset. In actuality, these turned out to be our Black-crowned Night-Herons. Their round-shouldered, rowing flight had made the observer think of an owl. In flight, they seem crow-sized. With binoculars, you see the rounded gray wings contrasting with the black back and top of head. They are white underneath. However, a young night-heron is a horse of a different color Ð streaked brown. As such, it can be easily confused with other brown birds of the swamp, a bittern for example. So, it is best to learn the young birds by the company they keep.

Andrews and Blackshaw’s “Birding Nantucket” shows this species to be common in the summer and rare throughout the winter. Looking at Christmas Bird Count data, we see an interesting cyclical pattern. Almost never seen before 1968, then we have a recurring five to seven year pattern with as many as 78 birds seen in 1975. More recently, winter numbers have been low, under ten individuals.
So, if you are in town at dusk, listen for the ‘Wok’ call overhead. Depending on tide, night-herons like to hunt the edges of Nantucket Harbor. They fly there from their daytime hiding places. A favorite spot is the rocky bed, only exposed at low tide, just south of Steamboat Wharf. If you can dodge the passing ferry activity, perhaps you will be rewarded with a ‘Wok’ on the wild side.

Ken Blackshaw is the author of more than ten books focusing mainly on natural history subjects. He writes the weekly bird column for the Nantucket Independent, and has just published Volume Three of his “A Year of Birding Nantucket” series.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

Check out the ‘Birding Nantucket’ series at:

Originally published in the Nantucket Independent, June 11, 2004

Nantucket Sea Gulls

Si – Si – I See Sea Gulls!
By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

Well actually – NO – you don’t! The term “sea gull” is one of the common mistakes made by the birding beginner, right up there with “Canadian Geese” (the correct term is “Canada Geese”). It makes no difference that there is a bird known as the “Mexican Duck,” not the “Mexico Duck.” This bird watching business is not for sissies!

Birders use the term “gulls” or use the species name. This week we are examining the Herring Gull, the gull which people are normally referring to when they say “seagull.” This is our most common gull, seen year ‘round here on Nantucket. It’s virtually impossible to look up in the sky from anywhere on the island and not see a Herring Gull, or two, or three.

It wasn’t always this way. Edith Andrews remembers Herring Gulls as strictly winter birds when she first arrived here in the late 30s. Our summer gull was the Laughing Gull, which is now uncommon. Arthur Cleveland Bent’s write-up in 1920 shows the Herring Gull’s southern breeding limit to be Penobscot Bay up in Maine. By the time Edith wrote her Nantucket bird book in 1948, the Herring Gull had become an “abundant” permanent resident, breeding commonly.

This spread of the Herring Gull shows the species has a lot in common with humans – and starlings! As a species it is an adaptive and very successful competitor. Over the latter part of the 20th century, it has spread southwards to now breed clear down into Chesapeake Bay. Doing so, it has displaced other gull species, notably the smaller Laughing Gull.

Herring Gulls are big, with wingspans of almost five feet. The adult is mainly white with a silver gray “mantle” and black wing tips. The mantle is the upper surface of the wing and extends across the back as well. The Latin name “Larus argentatus”, silver gull, says it well. The legs are flesh-colored and the beak is yellow, showing a large orange spot on the lower part. In the winter, the head becomes streaked with gray. Unfortunately for birders, not all Herring Gulls look like this.

Herring Gulls fall into a group of gulls known as “four year” gulls. That is, it takes four years to attain the neat-looking gray and white plumage mentioned above. A first winter Herring Gull is almost solid brown with a black bill. Succeeding years bring these gulls through a progressively lighter series of plumages until reaching adulthood. The sexes are similar. Only the gulls themselves can tell the boys from the girls. So, when you are looking at a gray and white Herring Gull, you are viewing one that has survived at least four years out in nature. Actually they can be quite long lived. One particular individual is known to have reached age 24 in the wild.

This species has very few natural enemies other than man. Not long ago in Labrador, Herring Gull eggs were considered a staple. The young birds were also taken and fattened up for the stew pot. Now in this age of “enlightenment”, the Herring Gull’s chief enemy is another gull – the Great Black-backed Gull. This bigger, aggressive gull is now pushing the Herring Gull out of many of its breeding territories.

Listen to the call of the Herring Gull.

Herring Gull behavior is fascinating to watch. One particularly neat thing they do is fly up in the air with a scallop or other shellfish, then let it fall to a hard surface so that it breaks open for a feast. Scientists have been studying this because it is an example of learned behavior, rather than an innate part of every Herring Gull. Not all parts of the population know how to do this. It’s necessary for young gulls to observe other gulls doing it before they try it themselves. Some gulls spend time dropping shells on surfaces that are not hard enough to do the job, such as beach sand.

Others become quite the experts. I’ve watched an adult gull with a scallop next to the Grand Union parking lot. The bird spread its wings and easily rose ten feet up using the headwind, not even bothering to flap. I kept expecting it to drop the shell, but no, back down it came, only to repeat the process. I think it was getting a feel for the wind, so it could control where the shell would strike the ground. Finally on about the fifth try, the scallop was dropped to neatly hit the brick walkway, and the gull quickly dropped down and began extricating its dinner.

The roof of the Marine Home Center lumber storage area is a favorite dropping spot and at times, it sounds like a hailstorm is going on, when the gulls are trying to break into moon snails.

So, the Herring Gull is a ubiquitous and very enjoyable part of Nantucket’s bird life. To experience it at its best, watch them on a day when the wind is so strong you can hardly stand up. Then look skyward and marvel at the way these fliers master our gales, gliding back and forth at great speed. It’s hard not to be aware of the exhilaration they must feel, high in the sky, with the world streaming past them.

Ken Blackshaw is the author of more than ten books focusing mainly on natural history subjects. He writes the weekly bird column for the Nantucket Independent, and has just published Volume Three of his “A Year of Birding Nantucket” series.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

Originally published in the Nantucket Independent, November 28, 2003.

Nantucket Birds: Waxwings

Waning Waxwings?
By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

Gee, it sounds as if Bahbwa Wahwah spoke these words. Our bird this week is one that never fails to delight and charm both new and old birders alike. It is a bird that subtly insinuates itself into your awareness, for you never see it at feeders or out hopping around your lawn. But sometimes they rain into a berry-laden holly tree and seem to disappear within.

Often known as the “cedarbird”, this species is right at home on Nantucket, and “Birding Nantucket” lists it as common year-round, nesting in July and August. This however, understates some of the drama of its seasonal movements. Waxwings are almost total fruit eaters, so their travels are dictated by what fruit is ripe and where it is. At this time of year, bittersweet and privet are a few of their favorites, and, as winter tightens its grip, the cedar berries for which they are named provide sustenance.

How do you find a Cedar Waxwing? One of the best clues is their call. By the way, this is also an excellent test of high frequency hearing. The calls are very high and all at a single pitch, with a slight lisping quality, each lasting just a second or two. Usually though, it is a flock of eight to twenty birds going past, and then the sound is almost continuous – similar to the ringing of tiny bells high in the air.

Listen to the call of the Cedar Waxwing.

Waxwings flock quite closely together and tend to twist and turn as a unit. If you see the group land, train your binoculars on the area and watch for motion. It is amazing how well these handsome birds can blend into their environment.

Cedar Waxwings are about seven inches from beak to tail, making them just slightly larger than sparrows. Your first impression is that you’ve found a little female cardinal. They have a sharp crest on their head like a cardinal, and show black through the eye. But they lack the thick, orange beak of the cardinal. Rather, the waxwing beak is black and a bit stubby. Their coloration varies from warm brown on the head and upper parts to a soft gray on the back and a creamy yellow on the belly. The undertail coverts are white, which is an important tool for telling them from their larger cousin, the Bohemian Waxwing.

But what about the wax on the wing? Most adults have hardened red tips on their secondary wing feathers, which apparently protects them from being frayed while feeding in the tangles. The effect is like the red wax used to seal envelopes, and provides a bright spot of red when the birds are perched.

So, now you’ve seen a waxwing. Look for another. It’s rare to see just one. These are social birds and the typical flock size is around 20. Sometimes hundreds are seen together, particularly in winter. Their social behavior can be quite charming, seldom fighting even though they are at close quarters. Indeed quite the opposite is the case. Many times there will be a group of a half dozen sitting in a row, passing a berry from one to the other down the whole line, then back again. It almost seems that this is a game they enjoy playing, for they have been seen to do the same thing with bits of cloth.

One-sixth of their diet is insects and they often act like flycatchers, perching on exposed limbs, flying out and snapping at a bug, then returning to the same spot. During snowfall with large, floating flakes, they’ve also been observed flying out and catching snowflakes. Whether this is just a drill to improve flycatching skills or they are getting a cool drink this way, we can only guess. Still, it is fun to watch.

Most people experience Cedar Waxwings by looking out their windows into a holly or cedar tree and noticing these classy-looking little birds swarming over the tree, gorging themselves on the fruit. A few moments before the tree was empty and now there are birds everywhere. Suddenly they will be alarmed and all fly off, leaving the tree again uninhabited. You find yourself wondering if you dreamed the whole thing.

We are coming into the season on Nantucket when large feeding flocks of Cedar Waxwings descend on the island from the north. Sunday morning birders still remember seeing flocks of hundreds in the winter in the cedars along Baxter Road in ‘Sconset. For many this was a life bird, and it’s always a treat to suddenly be exposed to a bird like this about which you had previously been unaware.

But remember the secret to finding waxwings is to learn their call. There are hundreds of these subtle birds on the island and they will give you a treat whenever you find them.

Originally published in the Nantucket Independent, November 5, 2004. George C. West creates illustrations for these articles. Check out the “Birding Nantucket’ series at:

Birds on Nantucket

The Bullbat
By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

You are out for an evening walk on the Monomoy Road and you hear “Peeeent!” floating down from the sky above you. If it were emanating from an early summer marsh near Sanford Farm you might think – Woodcock. But no, different time, different place.

Listen to the Common Nighthawk

This bird that mimics a Woodcock is the Common Nighthawk, a bird I know well, having spent almost 40 years on the mainland. It loves to nest on flat-topped roofs in most urban areas in the summer.

I remember going to Atlanta Braves games and being thoroughly distracted (the Braves weren’t doing well) by these graceful acrobats catching insects attracted by the stadium lights.

So what is a Common Nighthawk? First of all, it is not a hawk at all, not even closely related. It was given this unfortunate name by early European settlers based on its hawk-like flight and appearance. This caused it to be persecuted in bygone days, as everyone knew that anything with ‘hawk’ in their name must eat chickens.

This moniker, along with their apparently tasty flesh, made them a much sought after game animal in the late 1800s. One southern hunter wrote in 1885, “Their rapid and irregular flight makes them a difficult mark for the young sportsman to practice on, as he never fails to make a target of them when the opportunity offers. I can now understand the object for which this bird was created.” So there you have it, another animal created just so it could serve as a target. Makes me think of the poor possums and armadillos trying to cross the road down south.

In Pennsylvania, there was actually a bounty on nighthawks, since after all, they were – HAWKS! Fortunately by 1902, laws were passed and gradually this unbridled slaughter of this very beneficial species stopped.

Actually nighthawks are in the goatsucker family, the same as Whip-poor-wills. As a matter of fact, early naturalists thought these two species were really one in the same. In Europe they are called ‘nightjars.’ But the Latin name of the family, Caprimulgidae, goes back to the Greek legend about these large-mouthed, nocturnal birds stealing milk from the goats during the night.

In reality, their diet is almost 100 percent insects. They should be loved, not hated. One scientist found 500 mosquitoes in the stomach of a single bird. Another favorite is flying ants. One bird crashed into a building and was found to have 2,175 flying ants in its stomach, the weight of which may have caused the accident.

Nighthawks are very long-winged brown birds, most often seen at dusk. Their two-foot wingspan shows white patches toward the tips. Their body size is about that of a robin, but with their bounding bat-like flight, you’d never think ‘robin’ when you saw one. Actually this has brought forth one of their major nick-names, ‘Bullbat.’ They really do give the impression of a bat on steroids.

As an aside, I am continually amazed when I have to explain to otherwise bright-seeming adults that bats are NOT birds. By gosh, they are furry little mammals, like you and me!

As it is in summer such an urban bird nesting right on flat rooftops, it is a species that has been well studied. They lay just two eggs, but really make no attempt to build any nest at all. The eggs are simply laid on a flat surface and the parent, most usually the mother, covers them. More effort must be used to keep the eggs cool rather than warm, since temperatures of as much as 130 degrees have been recorded on these roofs while the mother sits on the eggs, panting frantically. They’ve seen cases where the tar has melted, sticking the eggs in place, causing the ultimate demise of the chicks.

The Common Nighthawk’s mating dance is spectacular. While the bored-appearing female sits on the ground, the male makes precipitous dives above her, only braking at the last minute with forward-sweeping wings. As this happens, an amazing sound is produced from the wing feathers, often referred to as ‘booming.’ I’ve been fortunate enough to actually hear it, and can attest that it gives you quite a shock if you aren’t expecting it.

Bullbats, or nighthawks, are very common birds over most cities and towns all over North America every summer, but not on Nantucket. I guess they don’t like the salt air.

On our quaint windy isle Common Nighthawks show up in small numbers when migrating north in May, and then are more likely to be seen from mid-August until early October as they make their way south. They all head for South America in the winter, surprisingly enough often showing up in large numbers over Bermuda on the way. This is a long way at sea for an insectivorous bird that can’t land on the water.

When you hear the ‘peent’ sound coming from the air in September, look up to see long-winged bounding birds gracefully sweeping the air above you. Realize they are eating hundreds of mosquitoes, and say ‘thank you.’

Ken Blackshaw is the author of more than ten books focusing mainly on natural history subjects. He writes the weekly bird column for the Nantucket Independent, and has just published Volume Three of his “A Year of Birding Nantucket” series.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

Check out the ‘Birding Nantucket’ series at:

Originally published in the Nantucket Independent, August 26, 2005

Nantucket Birds: The Catbird

The “Black Mockingbird”
By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

This week’s bird will knock you over with its song, but not by its appearance. Indeed, the Gray Catbird may remind you of that rather dull-appearing friend you have who astounds you with a zany sense of humor or plays practical jokes.

Catbirds are mainly summer birds on Nantucket and I must confess, one I refer to as my favorite bird. I always listen for their arrival in early May, for it is by song that they make known their presence. There may still be a chill in the air, but not too cold to drive with the window open, and as I leave my driveway in Monomoy, I hear four or five individuals announcing their territory where there were none the day before.

It is quite often an early morning discovery because like so many songbirds, these charming gray creatures migrate at night. Scientists think this reduces their risk from predators, thus defusing another hazard during this dangerous struggle of migration. Much research has been done trying to determine if they find their way by the stars, or even by feeling the earth’s magnetic pull.

Now those of you who are ‘bird’ people are saying, ‘Catbirds are here all winter.’ This is true, but they are not our nesting population and as such, are much shyer and more retiring.
Gray Catbirds provide us with yet another example of global warming, this one going back 130 years. In the 1870s, catbirds didn’t nest this far north; William Brewster referred to them on Nantucket as only a fall vagrant. But by the 1920s they were nesting, and had become very common in summer by the time Griscom and Folger wrote ‘The Birds of Nantucket’ in the late 40s.

The trend continues. The first Christmas Bird Counts in the 50s and 60s only found catbirds in about half the years. But as time has passed, more and more have been found until we reached a high of 81 birds for the 2006 census. Some politicians don’t recognize global warming, but our catbirds certainly do.

So what’s the big deal about a catbird anyway? They aren’t large birds, a bit smaller and slimmer than a robin. The colors don’t knock out your eye, being mainly soft gray, with a black cap and tail. In proper light, catbirds have a lavender tinge. The only color is hidden saucily under the tail – rusty undertail coverts.

But it’s their behavior that sets them apart. Birders like to call out birds by making various sounds to attract them. Catbirds are only too obliging. At the first squeak, the bushes around you may explode with catbirds. Suddenly they are here and there, tails pumping, chirping, rattling, or meowing like cats. Oftentimes they inflate their breast feathers in order to intimidate whatever is invading their territory. Some birds skulk when threatened. Catbirds rise to the occasion and give you ‘what for!’

Catbirds belong to the family known as ‘mimic thrushes’, along with the mockingbird and thrashers. Peterson describes their song as ‘a disjointed series of notes and phrases, some musical.’ Bent does them more justice but still understates the case; ‘a good catbird song needs no apology.’ To me it’s almost as if the bird is experimenting with sound, making a wonderful collection of clucks and whistles, often pausing for a second and looking around as if to say, ‘How was that?’ Their ‘black mockingbird’ nickname comes from the similarity between their song and that of the mockingbird. When not singing, there are the marvelous catlike mewing calls, thrumming sounds, and a nerve-jangling rattle like two sticks being clacked together.

Listen to the Catbird

But the best thing about our catbirds is their engaging and confiding nature. They are only too anxious to come out and share their thoughts with us. They also have a penchant for raisins. My friend Vi Allen had one that came to her hand for many summers to pick out just the tastiest one. Average longevity for a catbird is around three years, but bird-banding records show a max of nine. That’s quite a feat for a bird that regularly flies several thousand miles a year from summer to winter homes.

Nantucket’s Gray Catbirds are almost done with their nesting cycle now, so soon their cheery cacophony will be over for another year. The other call notes continue but singing is mainly reserved for proclaiming territory. So if you are out in the tangles, listen for these plain colored jokers. Try making a squeaking or ‘pshhhh’ing sound. You may meet your favorite bird.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles. Originally published in the Nantucket Independent, July 23, 2004

Check out the ‘Birding Nantucket’ series at:

Birds Around Us on Nantucket

Summer Ducks

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

Summer Ducks? Some aren’t! Some say, “if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck. Okay it’s a duck.” Excellent deduction!

Summer duck is the nickname given to a shockingly beautiful animal that nests across most of our country, including the Deep South where there are almost no other ducks in the summertime.

On Nantucket, it was considered a very rare bird back in the 50s when I was first learning my birds – a great frustration because it was the loveliest duck pictured in my bird guide.

What we’re discussing here is the Wood Duck – Aix sponsa – that translates to “a duck dressed for a wedding.” There is only one other duck in this Genus and that is the Mandarin Duck of Southeast Asia, another very fancy looking beast. They are often kept as exotic pets over here, and one actually showed up in a back yard on Golf View Drive a few years ago, much to the shock of the owner. Turned out that a local restaurateur had a flock of them for use on the menu and they would occasionally escape.

Wood Ducks are a distinctly North American Duck, breeding over most of the U.S. except the southwest. When you look at them in your bird book you have the feeling that no bird could actually be this colorful. The head has a shaggy, glossy, dark-green crest that hangs down behind it. There is a white bridle under the chin and a brilliant red ring around the eye. The flanks are creamy yellow down to the waterline and the throat is rich mahogany brown. Arthur Cleveland Bent refers to them as the Beau Brummel among ducks. Even the bill has an intricately painted pattern of red, black and white.

Only half the Wood Ducks we see have all this finery. Mrs. Wood Duck has the same shape, but all the colors are washed out, tending towards grays and ecrus. What stands out on her is a white teardrop around the eye. From late July to September the males lose their color as well. Like most waterfowl this is the post-breeding time of eclipse plumage. They molt their feathers in such a way that they become flightless. Their protection is to become just shadows of their former selves and shrink into the background of the swamp, hopefully unnoticed.

Your first awareness of Wood Ducks will often be a strange creaking sound from overhead. It sounds like something in panic and perhaps that is what it reflects as the birds are usually bolting away, the sound traveling rapidly with them. Their white bellies contrast with the darkness of the rest of these ducks whose long rounded tails make them look off-balance.

Wood Ducks are so-named because of their propensity to nest 40 or 50 feet up in trees, often using an abandoned woodpecker hole. The cavity may be as much as three feet deep; the ducklings have a special claw at the end of their little webbed feet that enables them to clamber up to the edge of the hole within a day of hatching. From there they either tumble down into the water or are carried safely by Mom. Their major hazard then is to avoid being eaten by a pickerel or a snapping turtle.

Man is unfortunately this duck’s greatest hazard. The wholesale cutting of our woodlands has made nesting sites hard to come by. This bird is also a favorite hunting target. Originally persecuted for its plumage as well as its taste, population numbers have plummeted over the years, mainly due to habitat loss.
Despite this, these ducks are now found regularly on Nantucket, even rarely nesting. Since it is a cavity nester it will use a box. If you travel by the Pout Ponds out on the moors you may notice big bird boxes with large entry holes there.

In the autumn you will occasionally find a Wood Duck feeding with the puddle ducks at Consue Pond off Union Street. One of my most memorable experiences was with the Sunday morning birders one late fall morning when we saw five or six Wood Ducks land in the red berry bushes on the west side of Miacomet Pond. They sat amongst the branches, looking quite awkward, but nonetheless appearing quite happy as they gorged themselves on the fruit.

A few hang around late into the autumn and even through most of the winter when the weather is mild and the fresh water ponds stay open. We find a small number on most of our Christmas Bird Counts. To see a Summer Duck up close and personal, visit the Maria Mitchell bird collection at the Hinchman House at the corner of Milk and Vestal Streets. Call Dr. Bob Kennedy at 228-1782 and someone will be happy to escort you.

In the meantime when you are in the out-of-doors around Nantucket’s ponds. listen for that frightened creaking sound overhead. They are always a prized sighting on our island at any time of year.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

The Maria Mitchell Association sponsors bird walks every Saturday, leaving at 8 a.m., and on Tuesday and Thursday, starting at 6:30 a.m., all leaving from the Hinchman House on at the corner of Milk and Vestal St. There is a fee. Call 228-9198 for more information.

Ken Blackshaw is the author of more than ten books focusing mainly on natural history subjects. He writes the weekly bird column for the Nantucket Independent, and has just published Volume Three of his “A Year of Birding Nantucket” series.

Originally published in the Nantucket Independent, July 7, 2006

Birds Around Us on Nantucket


By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

If you’ve been truly bitten by the birding bug, you spend hours pouring over the bird guides, oohing and aahing at this bird and that, and one bird is probably on your most-wanted list. Some of the ‘ooh aah’ birds prove disappointments when seen in real life. Their colors are muted or their behavior not satisfying. Not so with this species, it is an overachiever.

This is the American Redstart, known in Latin as Setophaga ruticilla, the ‘red-tailed moth-eater.’ My first experience with this species, actually a wood warbler, goes back to the early 1950s when it was possible to journey from the Madaket Road to the Hummock Pond Road on a magical lane known as Hawthorn Road. The dirt road wound through a marvelous forest of hawthorn trees. These formed a vicious and impenetrable thicket with their mighty thorns. It was here that my mentor, Edith Andrews, had told me to look for redstarts. I rode along on my bike until I heard a song that was new to me. It sounded a bit like a Yellow Warbler, but different.

Listen to the song.

After I made some spishing sounds into the bushes, out came the songster. Here was my first redstart, a male clad in flashy orange and black, smaller than I expected, and continually in motion.

Indeed that’s what strikes you about redstarts. Their diet is one hundred percent insects and many of those are caught on the wing. So the birds continually dart this way and that, and as they do, they create a kaleidoscope of color. They are mostly jet black above, but there are brilliant orange panels in their wings and tail that they display by fanning their tails, letting a wing droop or extend. It is as if they are using their colors to confuse the insects they are trying to catch. Occasionally they drop like a spinning orange and black leaf toward the ground, following a caterpillar or other prey they have dislodged.

Bird books show redstarts frozen in an illustration, but seeing them in real life adds another dimension. Of course, up to now, we’ve been discussing what an adult male American Redstart looks like. The females and young birds follow the same color pattern, but in grays, olive greens, and yellows. But the behavior is the same. On our island, you probably see five ‘yellowstarts’ for every redstart. But it just makes the males more appreciated when they do show up.

On Nantucket, these are warm season birds, common when migrating north in May, and south, August through October. They are rare in mid-summer but they are one of the six warbler species that nest here regularly. This year they are only being reported out near the end of the Wauwinet Road, but other years they have nested on Polpis Harbor Road and near the Hidden Forest. They probably still nest in the aforementioned stand of hawthorns.

American Redstarts are true neo-tropical migrants. That is, all of them depart south from the U.S. In Cuba, they are abundant in winter and a local favorite, known as ‘Candelita’ – ‘Little Torch.’ But they are also common throughout Central and Northern South America. They are such a favorite in many countries that they have been chosen as the symbol for the organization ‘Partners in Flight.’ Their mission is to bring people’s attention to the needs of these tiny mites of color who make the dangerous flight over thousands of miles from the tropics up into our area and then back every year.

Redstarts continue to sing on territory until their young are fledged in mid-July. If you are fortunate enough to catch one in song (even the females sing occasionally), the whole bird seems to vibrate in cadence to the melody. After nesting, the birds disperse and the fall migration starts. They gradually become more common here, but in the fall you must think ‘yellow’ rather than ‘red.’ It’s mostly the hatch year birds that follow the coastal migration route. If you see a tiny bird, flashing yellow and gray as it chases something through the shrubbery of your garden, you have found a redstart. They are easily seen until the end of October and a few into November, although this species has never been found on our Christmas Bird Counts.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

The Maria Mitchell Association sponsors bird walks every Saturday, leaving at 8 a.m., and on Tuesday and Thursday, starting at 6:30 a.m., all leaving from the Hinchman House on at the corner of Milk and Vestal St. There is a fee. Call 228-9198 for more information.

Ken Blackshaw is the author of more than ten books focusing mainly on natural history subjects. He writes the weekly bird column for the Nantucket Independent, and has just published Volume Three of his “A Year of Birding Nantucket” series.

Originally published in the Nantucket Independent, June 25, 2004