Birds : Summer spin
Common sense and years of experience tell us that the seasons progress at the same rate annually. Yet unfailingly it seems that summer progresses faster than any other season. Today, July 24, it feels as if no season is as brief as a fleeting temperate northern summer. To the disbelieving eye, the calendar shows that it is already near the end of July. Migrant shorebirds certainly know this and the adults are already well south of Arctic breeding grounds.
The further north one goes, the shorter the summer. Just a couple of weeks ago the birding was all about nests and baby birds. Today, it is about which way the wind is blowing to determine which migrants may blow in on the next frontal system.
In the seeming blink of an eye the patterns in the natural world have changed, flowing as always to the next, driven by the pattern of the earth's movement around the sun. For those interested in birds this is an exciting time of the year that just keeps on getting better for the next few months. The fall migration has begun in earnest for shorebirds and terns with new birds arriving on the Island almost daily.
Most exciting and worthwhile at this season is the activity on the beaches, shorelines, and tidal flats. It is also the "coolest" place to be in the serious heat we have been experiencing recently. The peak of the shorebird migration is under way. The adults of Arctic nesting species are southbound. Many arrive to stay a week or more as they put on weight, storing much needed energy for the next leg of their marvelous annual journey. Virtually any tidal area on the Island has birds using it that were not present a week ago or often even the day before.
A walk down Norton's Point in Edgartown, the barrier beach along the south shore that used to connect Chappaquiddick to Katama, is especially good at this time of year. The flats are good at any tide. Perhaps mid-tide offers the best mix of habitats and the birds are not as spread out as they are when it is lower. More birds are scattered about feeding when the tide is low. They are concentrated but sleeping with heads folded in at high tide.
At any rate there is a very good mix of plovers and sandpipers on the beaches these days. They are not alone as both terns and gulls are arriving on Island shores having fledged young on nearby islands. They are here to feed and rest in preparation for the upcoming migration.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
Currently, the Vineyard is experiencing a bonanza of terns. This past week a single immature black skimmer, the only species in the world with elongated lower mandibles, was seen on Sarson's Island in Sengekontacket Pond. A single royal tern, a large southern-ranging species, appeared briefly at Menemsha but did not linger.
The roseate tern, an endangered species, is one of the rarer species of tern in the world. They nest in a few major groups and many smaller groups in coastal New England. The largest colony in the world is off the tip of the north fork of Long Island on Great Gull Island (some 2,000 pairs) and the next largest colony is on a small island in Buzzard's Bay called Bird Island (with over 1,000 pairs). After the young can fly, birds from these colonies move closer to abundant food supplies. A significant percentage of the roseate tern population in the western North Atlantic is visiting Island shores and surrounding waters.
Upland sandpipers, fabulous birds that breed in grasslands across central and northern North America and winter in South America are due to arrive, in fact are probably here, in the fields at Katama in Edgartown. While these birds become regular visitors to the fields in early August, they are much more difficult to find in July. Secretive and camouflaged in the grass, the best way to locate them is by their distinctive call notes that carry a great distance. Often the birds can be heard farther away than they can be seen.
Lastly, something a little different: Tuesday night, 8 pm, July 29 at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, the Martha's Vineyard Film Society is showing a documentary that the whole family should enjoy. It is called "Rare Bird" and is about the rediscovery and conservation efforts of a bird long believed to have been extinct. It is a seabird and one of the rarest birds in the world. It nests on an island not that far from the Vineyard - Bermuda. The species is called Cahow or Bermuda petrel. It is quite a story and while the species is far from out of danger it has a champion fighting for its existence. For more information, check out mvfilmsociety.com.
Then, after this 81-minute movie, a short and snappy nine-minute trailer about sandhill cranes will be shown. It was filmed in Nebraska with seasonal resident Bob Shriber and this writer as the hosts. Hope to see you there.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky.