Birds : April rules
The Island is heating up - not with warm temperatures, perhaps, but definitely in terms of new arrivals, in the avian and human form. The upcoming weeks hold lots of promise and for birders a sense of anticipation that each new frontal system may be bringing lots of birds. While all the usual suspects, the migrant breeding birds that are fairly widespread and common, are returning right on schedule or even a bit early, there have been a few surprises thrown in.
Late April and May arguably represents the best time of year to learn about birds. The weather is often delightful (not with any regularity) compared to a short month ago, and the birds are in breeding plumage and singing constantly. It ignites one's senses; they come alive after a winter's chill. There is no better time to start, to slowly begin, to jump in with both feet, to renew, refresh, or re-energize one's relationship with birds and the outdoors, the natural world - the real world, if you will.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
If you are reading this, chances are you relate to the above waxing philosophical. If you never have gone out and admired or tried to identify the birds around you, my advice is try it, you might be surprised to find that you like it. It is fun, interesting, and as challenging as you care to make it.
For some it is a pleasant diversion, an excuse to get out and enjoy lovely places, while for others it is an avid hobby or even a sport. There are no age barriers and the playing field is level.
The next few weeks are the best time for certain southern species to occur on the Island. These are birds that nest well south of here and in their haste to return to ancestral breeding areas they end up too far north. Often this is associated with a fast-moving storm system that pushes birds north prematurely, and they can't turn around until after making a landfall.
Birds like prothonotary warblers that winter in Central America and breed in wet and swampy habitats of the southeastern U.S. are occasionally found here at this season. They are common in freshwater wooded swamps as far north as Maryland with a few reaching New Jersey. The species is always scarce in Massachusetts.
Occasionally, one to a handful of these warblers will overshoot southern breeding areas and show up here in late March or April. Because they nest farther south they start to migrate north earlier in spring to return to breeding areas that become habitable for the species earlier than more northerly areas. This missing the mark or overshooting too far north happens about every other year on the Vineyard but there is no regular or predictable flight. There may be a drought of as long as five years between sightings of these unforgettable warblers.
The greater the distance a bird migrates, the more finely tuned its migratory window. Species that take advantage of the far north's briefly abundant food resources have honed their migratory patterns accordingly. Obviously, insect-eating flycatchers and warblers that arrive in the spruce forest in April when there is still snow on the ground, cold temperatures prevail, and no insect food available, would have made a grave mistake and be removed form the gene pool.
These birds are constantly evolving and adjusting their migratory patterns. Boreal forest and Arctic nesting species remain south later than any other migrants and are the last to pass through in spring migration. So while the bulk of the land bird migration is over for most species by mid-May, along the coast the best time to find many of the most long distant migrants is in late May or even early June. These have the farthest to migrate and their breeding areas are the last to warm up and start insects moving.
There have been a number of glossy ibis reported from other places in Massachusetts. They are almost always scarce on the Island, but this is the best time of year to encounter them. This species inhabits freshwater swamps, wet grassy marshes, etc. and the Vineyard has scant habitat compared to many coastal areas.
Elsewhere, birds are arriving in droves. Eastern towhees, chipping sparrows, gray catbirds, tree, barn, bank and rough-winged swallows are just a few birds that are beginning to show up. The bird song at dawn and dusk is getting more impressive daily. There is so much of interest to learn, even if you only have a casual interest. Do you know the song and call of the American robin? Go out in your yard and follow one early or late in the day, and listen to it sing.
The most common migrant Island-wide this past week was surely the white-throated sparrow. These birds were everywhere and their clear whistled song, which is often denoted in words, paraphrased or changed from bird song to human language as "old-Sam-Pea-body" were singing virtually from every thicket and woodland on the Island. A small pulse of North America's smallest falcon, the American kestrel, is underway. These diminutive blue jay-sized hawks are widespread on the Island right now. At least six individuals were seen this week from Aquinnah to Edgartown.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!