Fast-moving April

Story By E. Vernon Laux - April 27, 2006

The Pine warblers are back on the Island. Photo by Lanny McDowell

The month of April is exciting for birders as fast-moving weather systems race across the continent from west to east. These weather makers may cause strong, even violent weather, with tornadoes, thunderstorms, and fierce winds with driving rains often accompanying the passage and boundaries of the low/high pressure systems. They impact not only human inhabitants along their path but also all creatures and plants along the way.

The bulk of the migrants attempt to move and avoid these strong systems but inevitably they encounter some unexpected weather. For first-time northbound migrants, those that only have inherited information and no real-world experience, there is much to learn on their first trip north. The powerful fronts, the edge between the high and low pressure systems, can wreak havoc on migrant birds which are often driven either to ground or off course to places they did not plan to visit.

It is this last bit of information, the fact that birds on the move can have their courses altered significantly by these strong storms that generates the excitement, the thrill of the unknown, as birders hope that some stray waif from elsewhere on the planet will descend onto their local patch. The discovery of what flew in overnight - wondering what the wind blew in, the beachcombing aspect of not knowing what one might find - appeals to many long-time birders. Call it avian prospecting, this is what birding can be like for experienced observers.

This is not to say that just seeing unusual birds is the "reward" or the only motivation for birders going out to look for birds. Birders watch birds for many different and often unexplainable reasons. Birding is personal for each and every individual but a few common themes motivate most. The real pay-off is getting out in the natural world, relishing the sights and sounds. To tune in to what is going on around you in the great outdoors, observing whatever there is to see. There is always something of interest, some previously unseen behavior or interaction or unrecognized sound that begs further investigation. Time spent in the field seems to speed by.

If one puts in the time in the field, particularly during migration periods, in a few short seasons one can learn all the "usual suspects" that routinely reside in or migrate through any area. Once one learns the common birds the chances increase dramatically of finding the more uncommon and rare birds. The more you know, the more you find.

Similar Song Types
Many breeding species - summer resident birds - have returned and when the weather is decent, are in full song. It seems all the pine warblers are back as their insect-like, loud trilling call emanates from pines Island-wide. Several observers who have seen them for the first time have called in to various bird lines. Congratulations on seeing and identifying these dimorphic warblers. The males are fairly easy to identify, but the females and young can be very dull and difficult to identify until one learns the field marks. Take another look in your field guide and check out the differences.

The similar sounding (to the pine warbler) chipping sparrow, a small but exquisitely marked sparrow, with a reddish cap at this season and pronounced eye stripe, is also singing profusely. It sounds even more insect-like than a pine warbler. With practice, its metallic trill can be distinguished from the warbler: the warbler has greater range in pitch, but a slightly shorter song. Yet the songs are similar and lots of patience and practice are needed to distinguish between the two.

Another audio problem that now exists on the Vineyard is very recent. Since tufted titmice have colonized and increased, they are now singing and breeding in more places every year. The ventriloquil Carolina wren sings a variety of songs and can sound remarkably similar to the titmice - in fact, it can be indistinguishable. Both species have more than one song and more than a few times I have had to drop everything to chase a particular bird to determine for sure which species was singing. There is always more to be learned - another reason that birding never gets boring.

An adult little blue heron was frequenting the pond at the Roth woodlands off North Road in Chilmark. Because inland ponds heat up faster than tidal ponds in spring, many herons are found in freshwater marshes and little wetlands at this season where there is more food for them than along the cold saltwater marshes. Whit Manter of West Tisbury found a blue-gray gnatcatcher at Waskosim's Rock in Chilmark on April 18. These tiny birds are scarce breeders on the Island and the last known location for breeding was near this area. Perhaps this bird will attract a mate and grace the Island with a family of these gnatcatchers.

May Day is rapidly approaching and with it, over the upcoming weeks, some very fine birding filled with colorful birds. The birds are easier to identify at this time of year, in their gaudy breeding plumage, than they are during the fall migration, when immature birds sport more subdued colors. Keep a pair of binoculars handy and you won't be disappointed.

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