Birds: Migration extravaganza
October 6, 2005
Story & Photo By E. Vernon Laux
This immature scarlet tanager looks little like the incredibly brilliant red of the adult male in summer. Still the diagnostic bill shape and coloration make it clearly identifiable as this species. This species breeds in small numbers on the Vineyard and flies to South America for the winter.
The birding in early October, specifically around Columbus Day Weekend, is to my mind the absolute best of the year on the Vineyard. Virtually any bird that occurs, or has ever occurred, on Martha's Vineyard is possible from now until almost the end of the month. Birds from across the spectrum are visiting Island shores, however briefly. From insectivorous (insect-eating) birds like flycatchers and warblers, to seed-eating sparrows, fish- and squid-eating sea birds, shellfish-loving sea ducks, frugivores (fruit- and berry-eaters) like cedar waxwings, bluebirds, American robins and a wide variety if insectivores like vireos and warblers that can and do switch to a diet of ripe berries in the fall migration if it is too cold for insect activity — the Island is alive with a great variety of bird life.
It is also far and away the best time to see migrating raptors on the Island. Because of the aforementioned plethora of bird life, raptors that depend on these species for food naturally have evolved a migratory pattern that coincides with nature's bounty of migrating birds. The fall migration is much larger in terms of volume (number of birds) than the spring migration. The reason is simple, the breeding season has just ended and bird populations, with all the young birds, all first time migrants, are at an annual peak.
There is no finer location in southern New England to see migrating peregrine falcons, merlins (both are falcons), sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks (both are in the genus Accipiter) than the western tip of the Vineyard, namely the Gay Head Cliffs. There is also no better time than for the next two weeks, especially with a light to strong northwest to southwest wind blowing. Peak times for big movement range from about 9:30 am to about 2 pm. If conditions are right and birds are on the move there is an almost constant stream of birds flying up to the cliffs and either circling about climbing higher, particularly for the Accipiters before dropping away toward Cuttyhunk Island.
Fortunately (or not) the only way to know if there is a movement going on is to be on hand. This is generally not possible, so the trick is to watch the weather (like a hawk, if you will) and pick what looks like the most promising scenario for birds to move. Attempting to think like a migrating hawk will certainly increase your chances of being on hand when a "good show" takes place. If you miss it and don't see many birds, try, try again. There are no guarantees when it comes to birding or hawk watching.
Sea ducks by the thousands
Another phenomenon that starts up right now is the passage of huge numbers of sea ducks by suitable vantage points. Tens of thousands of common eiders and all three species of scoters pass by or arrive to spend the winter on waters surrounding the Island. Some of the most impressive locations to witness these staggering numbers of ducks are at Wasque point in Edgartown, Squibnocket in Chilmark and of course right from the Gay Head Cliffs. It is wondrous to witness the massive flocks of ducks that seem to mat miles of the water's surface.
Birders have been out in force visiting favorite locales. Most mornings some observers have been found at the oft-mentioned cliffs. Allan Keith of Chilmark hosted very experienced observers Paul and Francine Buckley of Rhode Island on September 22 and 23. While finding nothing earth-shaking, they enjoyed views of two lark sparrows on Sept. 22 and a nice variety of warblers and sparrows. In the earth-shaking department, Allan found an adult female black-throated gray warbler on Oct. 1 in Chilmark. This western warbler is very rare in Massachusetts, even rarer on the Vineyard with the only prior record being of two birds visiting Ed and Maggie Sibert's Vineyard Haven feeder in late December of 1996. If accepted by the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee it will be a nice addition to the Island avifauna record.
Lanny McDowell was on hand at James Pond in West Tisbury to catch the over flight of two Caspian terns. These largest of terns have now been caught in the act twice this fall as they pass by on their way south. This species rarely lingers for any amount of time and is encountered as they do a fly by of the Island. There have been lots of reports of Baltimore orioles and a few of scarlet tanagers this past week.
If you are at all inclined to do some birding, this is the time of year to check it out. You will find that anyone you encounter out in the field, whether they know more or less than you, are more than willing to share their knowledge. Everyone was a beginner once and the best way to learn is to go birding with someone who has more experience than you. Don't be afraid to ask if you can tag along if you encounter other birders out in the field.
Until next week — keep your eyes to the sky!
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