April showers

Story By E. Vernon Laux - April 6, 2006

A pair of courting American oystercatchers strutting their stuff on their nesting territory along the south side of Katama Bay. Photo by Lanny McDowell

The biggest bird thrill this past week was not of a bird but of a legendary and famous birder visiting Martha's Vineyard for the first time. David Wingate from Bermuda came for a day of birding on April Fool's Day. An ardent conservationist, back in the 1950s Wingate "discovered" the Cahow or Bermuda petrel, a seabird that was believed to be extinct for 300 years. On Saturday, he was accompanied by Lanny McDowell of West Tisbury, Peter Trimble of Mashpee, and this columnist. The sun was shining, the wind was howling, and David Wingate was charmed by the Island and its impressive display of loons and sea ducks.

He got the grand tour and claimed to have had the best time! The flight of sea ducks flying below the headland at the Gay Head Cliffs, the flocks of eiders and 52 purple sandpipers on the rocks, the stunning looks at northern gannets and red-throated loons flying below us all greatly added to his impression of the Vineyard. He enjoyed the visit thoroughly and looks forward to another visit. He has done more for Bermuda's wildlife and birds than can be explained in this short column.

Despite the great weather of late, spring on the Vineyard is not the warm, tranquil, idyllic, season that one might dream about. It is a cooler, slower season than that experienced by most of inhabitants of North America. Instead, it is typically short periods of cold weather interspersed with nasty fast-moving frontal systems. A spring day with raging easterly winds and lots of driving rain can feel just as cold as any day in midwinter.

The same effects - provided by the cool ocean waters surrounding the Island - that make it so nice in the heat of summer keep it much colder than just a few miles from the coast in the spring. This keeps temperatures lower than elsewhere, resulting in a delay in emergent vegetation that in turn retards the availability of insects. Land birds try to avoid the inhospitable coastline in the spring.

Hence the Vineyard in the spring migration is an unfriendly place for insectivorous birds. Consequently, evolution has favored living (land) birds of various species that have survived by staying inland, away from the dangerous coastline, when they migrate north in the spring. It is an eye-opening treat for a birder accustomed to Vineyard spring birding to visit the middle of the country in early May. The bird migration is staggering in terms of numbers and variety of birds. It is unlike anything that the coastal birder ever encounters at this season.

Indeed for birding (or gardening) the Island in spring is a completely different place than the fall. The spring migration consists of a small fraction of the profusion of birds that visit this outpost during the southern portion of their annual migration in September and October. Nonetheless, the spring arrival of returning breeding birds, of water birds going around and over the Island, and the intensity of the resident birds make this a delightful time of year.

Returning breeding birds have been making themselves heard and seen. The king of the Vineyard birding scene in spring, the osprey, returned two weekends past in numbers, delighting observers young and old, new and experienced. The first look at one of these impressive raptors on a cold March day never fails to send shivers up one's spine - shivers that have nothing to do with the temperature.

On March 27, Carlene Condon of Edgartown reported the return of an osprey to the nest pole at Cow Bay in Edgartown. The nest was completely decimated, blown off the pole during a fierce Nor'easter this winter. The bird looked a bit confused as the nest looked nothing like what it left when the bird departed south. He will wait for his partner and then get to work rebuilding the nest. Carlene also watched this osprey eating a fish on a birdhouse, with a group of crows on the ground underneath, scavenging bits of fish scale and scraps. Crows just love seafood and fish of all types and are not fussy about how they get it.

Land birds are starting to trickle in and resident birds are getting more vocal daily. The start of the breeding dawn chorus is already taking effect. The calls of many bird species that will be feeding young in late May and June are hard to miss both at dawn and dusk. The plaintive call of the mourning dove, the loud, cheerful rambunctious calls of the Carolina wren, the whistled two-syllable love call of the black-capped chickadee, feee-beee on the same pitch, are all common and widespread noises on the Vineyard at this season.

For experienced birders the spring is time to hone one's ears, reacquainting the sounds birds make with the sounds rattling around in one's head. For beginning birders this is a great time to start looking at birds. Advantages that facilitate learning which birds are which at this season are many. The birds are calling, and they are conspicuous as the trees are still bare. Many birds stand out and act as if they are insulted if you don't look at them.

The calling birds are defending a territory, which means they really are not going anywhere except to a tree nearby if they get spooked. With a little patience and practice with binoculars, you will soon be identifying with confidence the birds in your neighborhood or yard. Once you identify your first song sparrow, white-breasted nuthatch or American goldfinch you start accelerating up the learning curve.

New birds are arriving almost daily. The recent and predicted weather with heavy rains and strong winds will most likely blow some wayward migrants to Vineyard shores. Colorful indigo buntings, summer tanagers and perhaps prothonotary warblers all distinct possibilities after late March/April storms. Be sure to phone in any sightings of wild and crazy birds that you might see.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky.

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