Birds : Migration throttles up
The weather has been magnificent and completely atypical for this time of year. April on the Vineyard is characterized by windy, wet, cold and often very foggy weather interspersed with short periods of sunshine and moderate winds. The weather this past week has been anything but quintessential Vineyard in the spring. Bright sunshine and warm temperatures have been a welcome shock to the system.
Some very rare birds were reported from elsewhere in the state this past week. Most unexpected is the report of a fork-tailed flycatcher, a South American species that was discovered in Brighton. This is one of the few land birds that winters in the New World tropics and migrates south in the Austral spring to breed in the higher latitudes of southern South America.
Occasionally they fly 180 degrees the wrong way or perhaps overshoot way too far north as they return from southern South America to the tropics. While it is spring in the northern hemisphere, it is fall where these birds breed in South America. Perhaps this bird over flew Panama and Costa Rica and kept coming north. There is no way to be certain as to how and why it arrived here. The only certain thing is that birds have wings and they use them.
On neighboring Nantucket on April 13 at 1 pm, a swallow-tailed kite was seen soaring around on the western tip at Madaket. They are hands-down the most graceful and shockingly attractive raptor in the world. This species winters in northern South and Central America. They breed in small numbers in the southeastern U.S. Occasionally they overshoot north and end up on the Cape and Islands. One was seen on the Vineyard a few weeks ago and sadly was found dead on Chappaquiddick a few days later.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
This unmistakable species seems to be showing up with greater frequency in the region. Whether there are more individuals heading north or just more people looking and finding them remains to be seen. At any rate, it is always a thrill to see one of these beautiful black-and-white, swallow-tailed raptors. They are amazing!
Migrant and returning breeding residents have been widespread. Birds abound on land and sea and bird song is prevalent and pervasive when it can be heard above the wind.
The usual spring bouts of rather nasty weather, absent this past week, can be good for unusual oceanic birds, gulls, loons and waders. It also explains emphatically why, over time, most land bird species have evolved migratory routes away from such inhospitable conditions. Land masses heat up much more rapidly and are weeks, even months ahead in terms of plant development with attendant insect species. These provide food and shelter for a throng of migrating land birds and they go where the food is.
Over the past thousands of years, land birds have adapted to conditions and learned by trial and error to move north from wintering grounds in South and Central America by proceeding up the middle of the continent and then turning out toward the edges. In the fall, the pattern is reversed.
Bird migration is in full swing although the bulk of the land birds are still well to the south of us. The coast of the Gulf of Mexico is alive with birds on mornings with light northerly winds. They will be arriving in New England in a few weeks. Most species will continue north the very next night and will grace our shores for only a few days at best. But many species reach their final destination here arriving to nest in the first week of May. The return of catbirds and Baltimore orioles to one's immediate surroundings is always a thrill.
Anyone who has had a close encounter of the hummingbird kind cannot fail to be impressed and amazed at the incredible small size and beauty of these smallest of all birds. To know for a fact that they fly here from the tropics is humbling. They are arriving as you read this. If you have a hummingbird feeder, by all means fill it and get it up as they are arriving.
Pine warblers, eastern phoebes, eastern towhees and many other species are back and proclaiming their control over a territory for this breeding season. Tree, barn and rough-winged swallows have also returned and good numbers of these species have been flying around over the head of the Lagoon whenever the temperatures have warmed up. Every time the weather clears and the winds are from the southwest, numbers of birds arrive. They also arrive in smaller numbers on virtually every day even with unfavorable winds and weather. The migratory imperative is strong and they can only wait so long before they push onward to ancestral nesting areas.
Most interesting and a bonus to living along the coast in the spring is the large and steady progression of seabirds making there way back north for another breeding season. Periods of prolonged bad weather with northeast winds such as we experienced two weeks ago are best. Birds that would normally proceed right past offshore or continue onwards unimpeded are forced to wait out the headwinds and poor flying conditions. Impressive congregations are staging all over, with the largest numbers in the waters around Wasque, on Chappaquiddick.
A trip off-Island at this season is an opportunity not to be wasted. Vineyard Sound is an avian highway at this time of year and frequently migrating flocks of loons and sea ducks can be seen. Fabulous views of common and red-throated loons and northern gannets are a regular feature. Some fine looks at black-legged kittiwakes and Bonaparte's and Iceland gulls are always a possibility. Woods Hole almost always features an impressive array of birds feeding in the fast water as well as numerous harbor seals lounging on the rocks at low tide.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!