The summer seems to have disappeared in the blink of an eye. How could it possibly be the last Thursday in August 2005, already? Reality - truth, if you will - prevails, however, and certainly the calendar has the right year on it. At any rate summer is almost over. No disputing this, and while this is mixed news for some folks, it's all good news for birders. The birding from here on out for the next 10 weeks is absolutely as good as it gets.
In fact, late August and the first half of September are the best and only time to see many species on the Vineyard. The upcoming weeks provide the best opportunity to see Baird's and buff-breasted sandpipers, arctic nesting species that winter in America. During the spring migration these birds move north through the middle of the continent, and most adults follow the same route in reverse in the fall. But with predominant northwest winds in the fall, small numbers of immature birds, making their first southbound migration, may appear for a brief time on Island shores.
Although the aforementioned species may appear, they are by no means a sure thing. They often are not seen or detected at all and may go unrecorded for several years on the Vineyard. Already this year, in the past week, both species have been reported from other coastal hot spots in Massachusetts, including Plum Island on the north shore and South Beach in Chatham on outer Cape Cod. Historically, the best time to encounter these globe-trotters is on or around Labor Day Weekend. This year the birds are being detected earlier and in greater numbers than normal.
While the days have been growing noticeably shorter, with sunset and sunrise, respectively, later and earlier, birds on the move have been hard to ignore. The fall migration is rapidly intensifying. On the beaches, immature shorebirds have begun to arrive and mingle with southbound adults. Tern numbers are impressive at many favored spots. This is a great opportunity to study the wide variety of plumages that these birds exhibit.
A couple of hours spent looking carefully at a flock of terns is most educational. Adult terns can be seen in all plumages from breeding adult to winter adult. The adult soft parts, bill and leg color changing from bright reddish orange to black, the black cap molting from solid black to white forehead and black only on the top and back of the head, the presences of a black carpal bar (shoulder mark). Then there are the immature birds molting from fresh juvenile plumage to first winter, the difference between common and roseate terns.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
Terns are fascinating and are only here for a short while longer. While watching a flock of terns, attempting to sort out the various plumages, pay close attention to the bird's behavior and what they are doing. All the while you are watching you will see an adult approaching a mixed flock with a fish in its beak. This adult will only feed its own chick, which it locates by sound. The bird will fly over the entire flock calling and all the young birds will call back hoping for a meal. It may make several passes and generally it creates a bit of mayhem among the ever-hungry youngsters. If you have not figured out the difference between the immature and adult birds yet, the one flying in with a fish is the adult.
Not only are the beaches and tide flats loaded with birds now, but on certain days so are most island woodlands and thickets. Those of you who feed birds or do a lot of gardening might want to consider providing water in the form of a bird bath. Birds are really attracted to water for drinking and bathing even more at this season than at other times. If you make the water move by creating a little drip action it makes it easier for birds to find. A little electric bubbler, a tilted watering can or any other way to make a little movement to the water makes it exponentially easier for thirsty migrant land birds to find.
With land bird migration about to hit full speed ahead, providing moving water will alert "day-tripper" birds to its presence. It can be very exciting and surprising to note all the different kinds of warblers, vireos, and other visiting birds that will drop in for a quick drink and a bath. Who knew that all these different kinds of birds actually pass through your own yard. It is neat to see unfamiliar birds in such a familiar environment. Noting what comes in late in the afternoon provides insights into the fall migration.
Lastly, with the summer winding down, it is time to think about harvesting things in the garden and looking at the yard. If you can leave the garden "messy" and let grasses along the edge go to seed, it will make your yard much more productive for migrant birds. A tidy yard is usually a sterile yard, so don't worry about cleaning up too much until early November. The migrant birds, especially the sparrows of October will thank you by visiting and benefiting from the bounty you leave them.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!