April Fool's birds
With the arrival of April, migration begins in earnest. The hint of bird movement gives way to the real, observable thing in upcoming weeks, reaching a crescendo in mid-May. From here to there, the timeline is always most enjoyable. Get out and enjoy the spring with a pair of binoculars in hand. No two mornings are the same, and each trip afield to look for birds yields surprises.
The rapidly increasing photoperiod, resulting in longer days and shorter nights as well as steadily climbing ambient temperatures, cause birds' endocrine systems to produce more hormones in preparation for breeding. To put it simply, this season makes the birds crazy. It also spurs on species that engage in migration to get moving. April is one of the better months of the year to look for birds.
The Islands experience the seasons in a far different manner than the rest of New England. This is the season when things seem to change imperceptibly, excepting flowers and flowering plants as they explode brilliantly on the scene, from winter to summer. Spring is slow to arrive on Vineyard shores. Winters harshness seems to fade, and the next thing one knows it is June.
The dichotomy between shoreline and sheltered inland areas is dramatic. Cold ocean waters and daytime onshore winds keep the south shore and exposed headlands back in time. Accompany these growing conditions with lots of salt spray and one has a rather harsh life zone for such a temperate area. The cold temperatures retard the emergence of leaves and vegetation so that plants of the same species living away from the water have a much longer growing season.
Much like Island real estate, location, location, location is the determining factor for what, when and how things will grow. How things grow affects what birds and other animals will inhabit the area, utilizing the plants for feeding and nesting. It dictates what species, both plant and animal, will occur.
This is my way of introducing the most productive birding spots on the Island in the spring. Birds are heading north in April and May, so logically one would assume or speculate that they would congregate on northerly peninsulas, headlands and shorelines. This is exactly what happens on the Island in spring.
They are attracted to areas that are green, so on the Vineyard areas that are green and the north side of the Island have the two-thumbs-up sign for attracting migrant songbirds. Downtown areas are way ahead, in terms of emergent vegetation, than anywhere on the south shore and Vineyard Haven has the added advantage of being the entrance to one of the "Chops," in this case West Chop. The "Chops" are both (east and west) excellent places for birding in the spring migration as they narrow on the northern tip, which, similar to a funnel, acts to concentrate the birds on their northern journey.
Another choice spot is the head of the lagoon area. The added benefit of moving freshwater accompanied by luxuriant plant growth at this location makes it one of the premiere spring spots. More rare and unusual warblers, vireos, flycatchers and the like have been seen here in spring than anywhere else on the Island.
This is not to say that birds will not occur elsewhere. They move primarily at night and over a broad front during the spring migration. On a given morning, there may be birds everywhere or nowhere. In fact, birds prefer to stay away from the coastline in spring and if the weather cooperates, will not appear on the Island at all. The only returning birds that must deal with the immediate coast are birds that nest here. But nasty weather, fog, and hormones all conspire to bring the Island its fair share of spring migrants whether the birds like it or not.
This past week was characterized by spring weather that was colder and worse than normal - which is a roundabout way of saying it was not so great. Record breaking cold across much of the continent put a damper on bird movements, and the Island - despite the return of osprey, oystercatchers, and piping plovers - is very quiet, bird-wise. Still, going birding is not without merit and there is increasingly more to see and hear.
Killdeer, grass-loving plovers, have been on the move in small numbers. Their penetrating and far-carrying calls can be heard from quite a distance both day and night. They have been heard overhead and from suitable field habitat with regularity this past week. Landbirds, mostly over-wintering individuals, especially white-throated sparrows, are beginning to look very sharp and much different than they have all winter long. Their appearance is most pleasing and in keeping with spring.
Bird song continues to increase and Carolina wrens, all resident woodpecker species, both red and white-breasted nuthatches, song sparrows, pine warblers, eastern towhees, eastern bluebirds, robins, and a slew of other species are making a racket most mornings. It will only get louder with each passing week until the middle of June.
The birding will improve dramatically the next time a warm front from the south occurs.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!