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The Martha's Vineyard Times

The Martha's Vineyard Times is a weekly publication.
July 14 - July 20, 2005 Edition
Web Comments - Email Submissions

Birds: Watchful birders get a great show
July 14, 2005

By E. Vernon Laux

This scarce southern plover has staged an unprecedented incursion into Massachusetts over the past month, with birds seen on the Vineyard, Nantucket, Monomoy, South Beach in Chatham and Plymouth Beach. Photo by E. Vernon Laux
The middle of July and the living is easy, at least as easy as it ever gets for bird life in this part of the world. The warm temperatures and lush vegetation provide an abundance of food, especially of insects that are eaten with relish by all birds and fed to ravenous nestlings. There are lots of birds around, wherever one happens to be.

Whether being roused from a sound sleep by a northern mockingbird singing incessantly through the night near the Tisbury School (as a caller attested by calling the bird line at 3 am on the morning of July 11) or walking in the State Forest and hearing and seeing this years impressive cuckoo bounty or flocks of cedar waxwings — it is a lovely and busy time of year. The tidal flats and beaches are already active with migrant shorebirds that have completed their reproductive responsibilities (hopefully successfully) for the year and are southbound. These migrants join the summer resident piping plovers, American oystercatchers, and willets anywhere there are suitable habitats around the Island.

It always is a bit of a shock to see these globe-trotting sandpipers and plovers appear in July while in the midst of idyllic summer weather. They know just how fleeting summer is, especially in the far northern latitudes where they nest. They are heading south now.

Fledgling birds, young birds just out of the nest, are everywhere. Just because birds have wings and feathers, enabling them with equipment to fly, does not mean that they know how to do it. They must learn to fly, and watching young birds attempting to become proficient at this most important of life skills is a kick. All that one needs to do is observe carefully (binoculars are essential) what birds are doing wherever you are. There are recently fledged young everywhere trying to master basic flight skills, “Flying 101,” if you will, and they make lots of mistakes.

The big thing, the most important thing for them right now, is that they have to watch for and avoid predators. House cats make short work of rookie birds trying to learn how to fly. So, cat owners, please keep your pets in at this critical juncture. The birds only have a few weeks of the year to reproduce and attempt to maintain their species’ numbers. After all the effort spent to raise young, it is most unsettling to see it all undone in a moment by some well-fed house cat.

Young birds are learning to fly and making mistakes, all of which is visible if one pays attention and looks with a discerning eye. This past week, just in the course of running errands, this writer saw a young cardinal overshoot the branch it was trying to land on and fall into a bush. Then there is a just-out-of-the-nest song sparrow that hops from branch to branch as it maintains contact with its parents who still feed it by sound. Occasionally it attempts to fly a short distance over grass and looks very silly, like a wind-up toy with not enough lift as it frenetically scoots across the lawn. Endless entertainment is available with minimal travel as this goes on all around us.

Gulls mooch lunch

Gulls — smart, opportunistic, long-lived, and abundant — can become something of a pest to beach goers. Many gulls have become expert at finding food among the human masses enjoying South Beach in Edgartown. Plastic bags of any kind may be summarily torn apart by cagey veteran gulls while right next to a sleeping sunbather, extracting edible foodstuffs from literally under the nose of the unwary provider. Several dozen gulls, mostly herring gulls but also a few ring-billed, have joined the group with more to come in the next few weeks, enjoying summer’s bounty, courtesy of unknowing “bird feeders” that are vacationing at the beach.

Terns will be fledging in the next couple of weeks on breeding islands in Buzzard’s Bay, Muskeget Island and elsewhere. When this happens the adults and young of the year fly to Vineyard shores where abundant food in the form of sand eels and silverside minnows provide all they need to eat, and the adults begin teaching the young terns how to catch their own food. They stage here from the end of July until late August or early September, fattening and molting before flying to the South American coast for the winter.

Sparrow update

A check of the clay-colored sparrow(s) this past weekend revealed no birds singing or being seen. Perhaps it was just an off day for weather, but the hoped-for first successful nesting in Massachusetts has so far gone unconfirmed. Further updates will follow in upcoming weeks as more is learned about what is going on with this bird(s) out on South Beach in Edgartown.

Wilson’s plovers (aka thick-billed plovers) have been seen all over the Cape and Islands over the past few weeks. Luanne Johnson saw one visiting with piping plovers on the beach at Lobsterville in Aquinnah. These southern birds have been seen more frequently than at any time over the past decades. What it means is unclear, but here’s hoping they will attempt to nest on-Island next spring.

Lastly, several immature bald eagles have been reported from all over the Vineyard. These non-breeding birds are frequent visitors, often taking up temporary residence along south side ponds. But when one wants to stretch its wings, flying from Gay Head to Cape Pogue is not a big deal or very time consuming for these large raptors. An eagle doing a fly-about on a nice, sunny, breezy day can and will fly over every Island town in about a half an hour.

Until next week — keep your eyes to the sky!

To contribute news about your birding activities or sightings, call The Times Birdline, 508-693-6100, extension 33; or e-mail
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