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The Martha's Vineyard Times

The Martha's Vineyard Times is a weekly publication.
August 18 - 24, 2005 Edition
Web Comments - Email Submissions

Birds: The heat is on
August 18, 2005

By E. Vernon Laux


This black tern in almost-full breeding plumage can be seen next to two adult common terns. The smaller, freshwater-loving black tern migrates┼]in small numbers along the coast in the fall, occasionally coming ashore to rest and preen. It is a common inland species.

This past week was amazingly hot and sticky on the Vineyard. While considered cool by many vacationers escaping from brutal humidity and temperatures in places like Atlanta, Washington, and New York, the weather was as uncomfortable on-Island as it has been at any time in the past 30 years. While this made the beach even more attractive, it did little to fire up birders. Despite a good number of visiting birders pretending to look for birds, it was a fairly quiet week for reports of anything out of the ordinary, except for one nice find.

Of course the "ordinary" at this season is very good, especially for off-Island visitors. The beaches are the place to be for migrant sandpipers, plovers, terns, gulls, and anything else that might wander in.

On August 13, Nan Harris, a seasonal Oak Bluffs resident, Jonathon Alderfer of Washington, D.C., and some other visiting birders took a run out to the Chappaquiddick side of Norton’s Point in Edgartown in the late morning. Amongst the common, roseate and least terns, Mr. Alderfer picked out a black and a sandwich tern. Sandwich terns are a southern species that occur rarely and sporadically in Massachusetts. There have been a couple of sightings this summer from over in Chatham, but this is the first one seen on the Island this year. Should a major hurricane make its way to New England this year, this species might be common for a few days following the passage of the storm.

Jonathon Alderfer’s name may be familiar to long-time Vineyard birders as he was the man on the spot who managed to take a stunning photograph of the red-billed tropicbird that was discovered by the late Dooley Rosenwald on September 15, 1986. This was the first of its kind in the western North Atlantic Ocean. The bird stayed around for a couple of weeks and brought thousands of birders to the Island. Mr. Alderfer is an accomplished artist, and his bird paintings are exquisite. He is currently preparing the artwork for a new National Geographic Guide to North American birds as head artist and co-author.

Roseate tern central

The Vineyard — specifically, Norton’s Point and Eel Point in Edgartown, any of the openings of the Great Ponds, Menemsha Pond, and the entrance to Lake Tashmoo — offers one of the finest locales in the world for observing roseate terns. The birds arrive on Vineyard shores shortly after the young fledge in late July and early August. The adult comes back from fishing and then fly about calling, finding its chick, then land, adult and young together, generally in the company of common terns, allowing great views and ample opportunity to study these very similar species. It is a treat for birders to see this species, fairly rare over most of the continent.

The aforementioned locations also are the best places to look for shorebirds, which are currently around in good numbers. Any tide is okay for seeing these birds, but the birds are easier to approach and view when the tide is not full and they are feeding and moving about on the flats. At high tide they are resting, sleeping, preening, etc., and it is important not to disturb them during this brief time. These birds are in the middle of a huge migration and the few hours a day when they are not really active, not being chased about or disturbed, using valuable energy they will need, are a big factor for each individual’s survival.

A black tern has been seen for about 10 days at Norton’s Point in Edgartown. Lanny McDowell of West Tisbury has seen this species on his last three trips there, and Alan Keith of Chilmark has seen this species (perhaps the same bird) as well. The usual suspects have been showing on tidal flats Island-wide. No shorebird surprise yet to speak of this fall though hope springs eternal.

As this is being written on the morning of August 15, the weather has finally changed. A strong front passed last evening, flooding many areas of Boston and the south shore, but essentially missing the Vineyard in terms of rainfall. However, the wind direction has swung to the northeast bringing cool air off the cool ocean, offering most welcome relief from the scorching temperatures and nasty humidity. There should be migrant birds in the night sky. Migration will quickly heat up, and the best birding of the year approaches.

Lastly, a report of a mystery all-white bird from West Tisbury seen by Karen and Jeff Meeks. They suspected that the bird was a genetically unique brown-headed cowbird and they were right. Very rare in nature, albinism is the total lack of pigments — meaning all the feathers are white and the soft parts, leg, beak, and eyes are pink. This cowbird has pink legs and beak, but it is hard to tell about the eyes.

Brown-headed cowbirds are brood parasites, meaning the female cowbird lays its egg in another birds nest and keeps going, leaving the unsuspecting small birds to raise at the expense of the host species’ young. At any rate this apparent albino is seen in a flock with other cowbirds. Nature, unless it is a superior change, is not kind to differently marked birds. This bird stands out in a flock and will quickly become a target for predators. This is one reason these genetic anomalies are so rare.

Until next week-keep your eyes to the sky.


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