May days

Story & Photo By E. Vernon Laux - May 4, 2006

This snowy egret - with a shaggy crest, yellow lores (skin between eye and beak), body breeding plumes, and distinctive "golden slippers" - was photographed on Beach Road. This species used to breed in several rookeries on the Vineyard but seems to be gone from all its former colonies. There is a colony nesting on Nomans Land and at many places on little islands around Cape Cod.

This is the best month of the year for birds on the Vineyard - so far. The "so far" qualifier, at the end of the last sentence, is in recognition of the extreme differences between the spring and fall bird migrations. Almost all land birds and many other kinds of migrant birds follow entirely different routes heading north in the spring and then south in the fall. The New England coast is much quieter during spring than during the fall migration.

If plotted, drawn on a map of the Americas, the annual route for most species would be described as an ellipse. The northbound journey typically showing a straight shot up through the middle of North America, the southbound trip, a slower, coastal journey, punctuated with long straight flights over ocean waters or the Caribbean to Central and South America.

After a typically long and frankly rather boring late winter and early spring, there is noticeable change in the bird world. Not just a little but lots of changes as both migrants and local nesters continue to arrive. If you are inclined to put out orange halves, bowls of jelly, keep the suet feeder stoked, or put out a hummingbird feeder, there is no time like the present. The orioles, catbirds, grosbeaks, hummingbirds and other species are all passing through and they are hungry.

A perfect illustration of why birds stay inland in the spring would be to look back at the weather earlier this week from May 1 thru 3. A typical spring storm that brought strong and persistent northeast winds, blowing in all that cold air from out over the Gulf of Maine and the North Atlantic and lots of precipitation making it feel like a late-winter storm. This retards emergent vegetation, knocks down insect activity to just about nil and basically makes life very hard for any insectivorous migrant birds and newly arrived breeders.

Yellow, pine, and other newly arrived warblers resort to desperate measures when they arrive and there is nothing to eat. It is rather stunning to be watching a suet feeder that has had the same birds visiting all winter and spring when all of a sudden some new, extremely colorful bird arrives to take a life-sustaining caloric bite of beef fat. It takes the human psyche away from itself and into the wonders of the natural world, the mystery of little birds migrating thousands of miles and finding what they need to sustain them on an incredible journey.

Exciting times
Mornings in May are exciting, whether looking at bird feeders or better yet out listening and looking for birds at a favorite spot. No two mornings are the same during migration, although when the wind persists from the northeast it can be very similar on land, and it is always interesting to patrol familiar ground and see what the night sky has delivered. It is hard to predict exactly what each morning will bring but surely if the wind is from the west there will be nocturnal migrants in the night sky that might very well end up wherever you happen to bird. The only way to know is to get out and look. Looking for birds increases one's chances a whole lot.

New arrivals have been trickling in. Hummingbirds have been reported from all Island towns. Rose-breasted grosbeaks have been reported by Charlie Finnerty in Chilmark and Debbie Carter in Edgartown, both seeing their first on or about April 24. A few male Baltimore orioles have been seen, but the big wave of these birds has yet to arrive. Generally they arrive en masse, some time over the next week to 10 days. If they show up in your yard or elsewhere please, call the bird line and let it be known.

Small numbers of birds have arrived with singles here and there. I suspect that when the weather breaks, it looks like the wind will come from the southwest and skies will clear on the day this paper comes out on May 4. There should be a large and noticeable incursion of migrants as soon as this happens, as the recent nasty northeast wind and rain effectively bottled up northbound migrants in this part of the world. The birds are keeping a schedule in the spring and arrival time back on the breeding ground is very precise. They can only wait so long and when delayed by bad weather they attempt to make up for it by pushing hard to get north.

The northeast winds, while bad for land birding are not all bad. The plus side is that it concentrates sea birds along coastlines and often impressive numbers of migrating loons, waterfowl, northern gannets, and other birds can be seen close to shore. Last May after a similar strong storm close to the end of the month, both red and red-necked phalaropes, pelagic shorebirds that nest in the Arctic, were driven inshore. Great views of both species in breeding plumage were possible, something that had not happened on the Island, at least that we know about, ever before.

There is always something going on, something to see, some new bird song or behavior to see and experience during any day in May. Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

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