Birds : Fantastic finish to summer
Change is in the air, literally, both day and night. Aside from the obvious and very noticeable changes such as the shortening days and increasingly brisk nights, the twilight, both at dawn and dusk, resembles a watercolor dream in the delicious late-August air. In addition to these lovely changes, there is something slightly subtler and not obvious to everyone. To one who loves being out in the natural world, the change is about the numbers of winged creatures in the air. Birds by the thousands are on the move, both by day and at night.
Aside from the delightful weather and seasonal hues, the fall migration is underway. If it were measurable with a flow meter, the volume would be rapidly changing from a trickle to a torrent. Those fortunate to live along the coastline of New England, or on the Vineyard in particular, know that this is the season that surpasses all the others by more than a little. Birding, fishing, eating fresh produce, shopping, reuniting with friends not seen since spring, etc., the season has much to recommend it.
Everything is better from late August until the end of October or even the onset of winter. The month of September is always fabulous and offers the best birding of the year. Late August often offers spectacular birding. The last week of August and the first week of September are the only times when certain rare species of birds may be encountered at all. It is an excellent time to be afield and an important time if one wants to see rare birds.
Rare in this case means birds that are not found here except during a very brief migration window, and even then they are not found in any numbers and do not occur every year. In other words, they are rare on Martha's Vineyard. Buff-breasted and Baird's sandpipers are two such species. If they are going to be seen on the Island in the year 2008, it will be in the last week of August or the first ten days of September. The same is true of yellow-bellied and olive-sided flycatchers. These birds move through in small numbers in a very short and remarkably consistent migration window. It is important to get out birding at this season to avoid missing some species for the year.
Fishermen off Aquinnah and between the Gay Head Cliffs and Nomans Land have been seeing pelagic birds. Frequently being reported of late have been Wilson's storm-petrels and greater shearwaters. The birds have been seen in Vineyard Sound as well. Tern numbers are building in Menemsha Pond and both laughing and ring-billed gulls are increasingly common in Menemsha Bight and elsewhere.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
Jaegers, birds that nest in tundra regions and then wander the oceans of the world for the remainder of the year, have been seen several times this past week. These highly pelagic, falcon-like seabirds specialize in air piracy. Superb flyers, they are king of the oceanic realm they inhabit and make a living most times of year by kleptoparasitism.
In other words, they steal food from gulls, terns, gannets or whatever species has it. They do this by spotting a bird with a full crop or by its manner of flight. They know it is full of a meal and give chase. It is like a top of the line jet fighter chasing a cargo plane - no contest. The jaeger will attack the bird, peck it, grab it, and knock it out of the air if necessary, until it disgorges its meal. Sometimes, they will grab a hapless bird and instead of making it give up a meal, they will make it the main course. They are rough customers who are feared and avoided by other seabirds.
Lanny McDowell of West Tisbury has been out checking waders and looking for land birds almost daily. He reports lots of eastern kingbirds and Baltimore orioles along with a smattering of warblers from the south side of West Tisbury.
Lastly, turkey vultures continue to increase on Martha's Vineyard. It was a rare bird 15 years ago, but has increased, slowly at first, then more rapidly, to the point where they are no longer remarkable.
They have expanded their range northward annually for the past 20 years. They were first detected breeding along the terminal moraine in West Tisbury 15 years ago and are assuredly nesting in many other spots in the hills of the Vineyard. Seeing eight to ten of these impressive birds a day is not unusual. Turkey vultures have become a regular feature and part of the Island's avifauna.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky.