Changing gears

Story By E. Vernon Laux - April 20, 2006

Hummingbirds are arriving. Get your feeders ready. Photo by Lanny McDowell

The days, the month, the season, all seem to accelerate toward the end of April. While time is certainly passing at the same constant rate, it sure feels otherwise. With the bird migration picking up in both numbers and variety of birds, making each morning, each day, an adventure, every day is an Easter Egg Hunt for birders, if you will. There is never enough time to go birding in all the nooks and crannies that so want to be investigated. There are not enough hours in the day in April and May.

Bear with me on the following analogy, that of shifting a standard transmission vehicle through its gears. Right now we have gone from second gear to third, the passing gear, with its rapid pick-up and big power; it seems to fit the migration pattern perfectly. From the middle of March, a slow and steady first gear has been bringing in some birds and others are leaving.

Then last week it shifted to second with a noticeable increase in all things migratory. This past weekend it shifted again and from now until somewhere from May 10 to 15 will remain in third until we hit the final cruise speed for just a week or 10 days before downshifting back quickly to first gear by the second week of May. Forget about overdrive in the spring on the Island - that is strictly a September and October phenomenon.

Excuse this comparison if you are not a standard- transmission experienced driver. The short of it is bird migration is picking up, it will continue to get better for another month and not only are lots of birds on the move but the possibility of rare or stray birds, the whipped cream on the strawberries, so to speak, is also greater at this time than at others. Birds are everywhere and on the move.

Stunning Easter visitor
A swallow-tailed kite, a really rare bird in this part of the world, unarguably the best looking bird of prey in North America, was spotted flying low over Moshup Trail in Aquinnah on Easter Sunday, April 16, just before the start of the Gravity Race. The species is so great looking, with its long forked tail, stunning black-and-white plumage and ridiculously graceful manner of flight that when seen, they have a dream-like quality. Many birders have traveled to South Florida to see these birds in Everglades National Park or Corkscrew Swamp where they are present from late March through September. They depart these "harsh" climes in the winter to even warmer places in northern South America. Take a look in a field guide at the Swallow-tailed Kite and be amazed.

This stunning bird makes and unpredictable and very infrequent forays to the Vineyard and Massachusetts, always in the spring and perhaps once a decade. There have been sporadic sightings in late April and in May, less than a handful of times in the past 50 years. The latest sighting was made by Nancy Weaver and David Dandridge of Vineyard Haven at 1:15 pm as they were bicycling to the start of the Gravity Race along Moshup Trail. They had stopped to look at something else when Nancy spotted this bird flying in low along the dunes from the east. She directed David's gaze to it and they both went slack-jawed as they recognized this distinctive and unmistakable bird. They have seen them down south and were startled to see one flying along the west end of the Vineyard.

They watched as the bird came along the dune line, then crossed over the road and headed inland (north) right along the tree line. It then disappeared from view. Wow! Of course the wanderings of these southern birds - which feed primarily on flying insects, lizards, snakes, and young birds - are totally unpredictable when they are so far north of their normal range. Where this bird is, where it's going and what it is doing now all remain a mystery until when and if it is seen again. At any rate this is one really great bird to see on the Vineyard and a wonderful Easter present. Perhaps some other fortuitous observer will encounter this handsome bird.

Another, more usual but still rare, spring visitor was discovered and then recovered on April 12 on Chappaquiddick in Edgartown. Kevin Keady found a dead male blue grosbeak that had succumbed to something. It may have hit a window but the cause of its demise at this time remains a mystery. Before it was found it had visited Nelson Jones's bird feeder. These birds are aptly named, with large, seed-eating beaks; the males are a deep, vivid, blue color.

Lastly, new species are arriving daily. Marjorie Rogers of West Tisbury called in to say it is time to get hummingbird feeders out. Molly and Becky Cournoyer on Indian Hill in West Tisbury had a ruby-throated hummingbird visit their hummingbird feeders all day long on April 16. This is a sign of the times. The birds are coming back in fits and spurts but they are coming. So it is time to shift gears and get out all the things that you put out in the spring - raisins, oranges, sugar water, or whatever else you use, because the birds will soon be there to eat them.

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