Spring migration

Story By E. Vernon Laux - April 13, 2006

This north-wandering yellow-throated warbler was fortunate to find a complete bird-feeding station at the Mercers' home off Menemsha Crossroads in Chilmark. This southern-nesting bird rarely occurs on the Vineyard. Photo by Lanny McDowell

The natural world, the birds' world, is changing rapidly now that the middle of April has arrived. The Vineyard spring migration is different from that experienced by birders across most of the rest of the continent, since land birds try to stay inland away from the coast, with its many hazards - chiefly, for small land birds, a vast and death-dealing ocean. The passage of time and consequent evolution has favored birds that stayed away from the hostile spring coast, enforcing the migratory patterns.

If you want to see lots of land birds in the spring, head to the middle of the continent. This is where the vast bulk of neotropical migrants transverse before heading east or west as they move north. Basically the land birds that arrive on the Island in spring, other than local nesters, are birds that have erred. Reasons for this are numerous. Perhaps they were caught up in a powerful, fast-moving storm system, they became disoriented and lost in the fog, or they were just overly pumped up by springtime hormones and they eagerly overshot their intended destination. Whatever the reason, the end result is the same - they are somewhere they don't want to be.

At Menemsha Crossroads in Chilmark on April 6 around noon, Marie Mercer spotted an unfamiliar bird visiting her bird feeders. She quickly looked it up and was certain it was a yellow-throated warbler, a vagrant to the Island and a species whose normal range ends many hundreds of miles south and west of here. She was able to show it to her husband, Stan, who concurred on the identification and they put the word out. Lanny McDowell was able to get some splendid photos. The Mercers do indeed have a striking yellow-throated warbler visiting primarily their suet feeder. The bird was still there as of the morning of April 10.

Also on April 6, a male Baltimore oriole appeared at a feeder on Chicama Path at some oranges put out specifically to attract same. This is very early for a migrant and it is tempting to wonder if this bird over-wintered. Or it could have been on the same system that brought the yellow-throated warbler to the Island. Either way, spring is here, birds are coming, going, and nesting. It is a great time of year and anything really is possible to show up at this season.

Bird migration is gaining momentum, especially notable along shorelines at dawn. Hundreds of red-throated and common loons, northern gannets, a wide variety of sea ducks, gulls and lots of other sea birds can be seen all flying purposefully, primarily northward. These birds will be nesting as much as 2,000 miles farther north in a scant few weeks. Time is short, the migratory urge strong and these birds have a schedule to keep. They are on the move.

Ashore, along the tidal flats, shorelines and beaches, there is also increased activity. The beach grass is showing new growth in the form of green shoots on an otherwise very dreary sandscape. But the presence of marvelous American oystercatchers - the fantastically marked, orange-beaked shorebirds that nest right in the open on the bare sand - adds much-needed vim and vigor to an otherwise rather bleak scene. Throw in the diminutive piping plover - with its subtle, camouflaged markings but large and distinctive voice - and the beach seems a decidedly more interesting and life sustaining place in mid-April.

The shorebirds are not the only birds on the beach. Both song and Savannah sparrows sing, defend territories, chase each other, interact, and prepare for the breeding season that is upon us. The birds are active and noisy and never more obvious than at this season. The vegetation is dormant and sparse after six months of punishment making the cryptically marked birds easily observable for the next few weeks. It is the only time of year when one can be fairly assured of getting great looks at the birds and learning to differentiate between these two similar species.

Horned larks, lovely birds that are the only North American representative of a large and diverse family of birds that are widespread in the Old World, are nesting in beach grass around the Island. Along Beach Road between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, anywhere on East Beach on Chappaquiddick, the length of Norton Point in Edgartown, continuing west along the dunes along the south shore of the Vineyard, right up to Moshup Trail in Aquinnah and in the dunes at Lobsterville, these handsome birds perform their aerial flight song. The birds sing while fluttering high in the sky, for 15 minutes or more at a time - hence the verb skylark, which means, "to play actively and boisterously." When one knows the song and tunes in, it is surprising just how widespread but thinly distributed these birds are along the fringes of the Vineyard shoreline.

Migrants are arriving daily, bird song continues to increase and the season only continues to get better. Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

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