Birds : Summer solstice
Summer has officially arrived and the breeding season is already beginning to wind down as adult birds are frantically feeding young. It is busy Island-wide. Despite the human crowds in certain locations there are still lots of quiet areas that are jammed with nesting birds.
Bird songs are starting to diminish. As young birds grow and require increasing amounts of food, it seems the adults don't even have time for an occasional song. There is still a dawn chorus that starts around 4:30 am, but most song ceases after 8 am.
Densities of breeding birds here are impressive as is access to fine birding areas. The middle of the Island, the State Forest, is a fine place to look for birds, go for a walk, look for butterflies, or do just about anything else one cares to do. After dark it is the best place on the Island to find whip-poor-will and many species of owls. Early morning, dawn, is generally the best time for birding as the wind lets go and human activity is at its least. In other words there is little or no road or airplane noise pollution.
The State Forest has nesting populations of eastern towhee, gray catbird, brown thrasher, eastern bluebird, black and white warbler, common yellowthroat, pine warbler, prairie warbler, hermit thrush, field sparrow and many other species. It is a worthwhile place to go for an early morning walk at this time of year. This is the best time of the year to learn bird calls and song and this is a good place to do it.
Many of the larger Martha's Vineyard Land Bank properties are also excellent for nesting birds. As they remain undeveloped and little visited, especially at dawn and dusk, the breeding birds are often quite obvious. They are impossible not to hear singing, and with a little practice one can find them singing in the foliage.
The beaches also have nesting birds on them. American oystercatchers, piping plovers and least terns are found in every Island town on open stretches of beach. These birds have young now and are busy protecting, defending, and - in the case of the oystercatchers and terns - feeding their young.
Piping plover chicks hatch and are completely precocial. This means that they are up and running about, finding their own food, from the moment they peck their way out of the egg. The adults never feed them. It is much different from what most of us think of when thoughts go to baby birds. By way of comparison, young songbirds hatch naked and helpless, totally dependent on the adults and the protection and security of the nest. They must be fed and sheltered in order to survive.
excreted, enabling them to drink saltwater.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
The entire continent is sweltering and record heat has engulfed the Island, along with the rest of New England. The natural air conditioning that makes the Island so attractive during the hot summer - the beaches that encircle it - attract people like iron to a magnet. The refreshing and invigorating waters act as a salve from the daily routine. It also puts large numbers of humans in direct contact with nesting piping plovers and least terns. Humans have the advantage, most being able to read, so if an area is posted with a nesting birds sign, take it to heart. Give the birds a break and stay out of where they are.
They nest on the open sand, and their survival is tied to what happens in the next couple of weeks. With the ferocious heat, the beach sand becomes like an oven, and baby birds will seek shelter under whatever cover exists in the form of beach grass or other vegetation. Disturbance by careless, inattentive or recklessly trespassing humans causes them to run away, often with disastrous (as in fatal) results. If a favorite beach area has signs proclaiming it a nesting area, just move off a short way. If you notice birds giving alarm calls or agitated at your presence, then you are too close to unseen young, and you should move a bit further away.
A little common sense is all that is necessary to enjoy the beach in more remote areas. The more frequently visited beaches - such as along the Beach Road in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, South Beach in the Katama section of Edgartown, the town beach in Tisbury at the entrance to Lake Tashmoo and town beaches in Chilmark and Aquinnah - all have excellent signage where nesting birds are present. In areas that have birds but no posted signs, be aware of calls or behavior of any birds present. Notice them when they are attempting to ward you off and protect their young.
It is a bad time of year to bring a dog to the beach. As much as they love going in the water, they cause a real hazard and danger for nesting birds. Instinctively reacting to the four-legged predator, birds go into a frenzy, adults and chicks. In this all-too-familiar scenario, bad things happen to baby birds. It does not matter if the dog is old and has no designs on or interest in the birds, as the birds react instinctively to it. Should the dog be younger and playful, the entire nesting season can be lost, an entire generation of birds wiped out. It is very important to keep the dog off the beach for another few weeks.
At the same time the breeding season is in full gear, there are still some interesting non-breeding birds around. Many species of larger birds do not breed in their first or even third year of life, maturing more slowly. Ospreys, for example, usually don't breed until four years old and then really don't get proficient at raising young until eight or ten years of age.
Many seabirds breed in the southern hemisphere, in the Austral summer, and winter in the northern hemisphere in the northern summer.
These include species such as Wilson's storm-petrel, greater shearwater, and sooty shearwater, which are currently seen off the south side of the Vineyard. They are enjoying all the benefits of summer in the North Atlantic, when it is midwinter back on the islands where they breed. Pretty much the same strategy employed by many Vineyarders heading south in winter to enjoy a much milder climate.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky.
To contribute news about birding activities or sightings, call The Times Birdline, 508-693-6100, extension 33, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.