Night flights

Story By E. Vernon Laux - May 11, 2006

Baltimore orioles showed up at numerous Island locations this past week. Some will stay for the season and some are just passing through on their way to other summer homes. Fresh orange halves are the surest way to get their attention. Photo by Lanny McDowell

The past week was as good as it gets in the spring on the Island. After a long stretch of inclement weather with persistent northeast winds that bottled up northbound migrants, the weather and wind direction changed, bringing lots of birds our way. The night of May 4 and the early morning of May 5, the night sky was alive with migrants winging their way north and east. Dawn broke on May 5 and birds were everywhere, announced by songs that had not been heard since last.

It is unusual on the Island to have so many birds arrive simultaneously in the spring, especially in early May, but that is what happened. Most noticeable were Baltimore orioles, issuing their distinctive, pleasant and melodious songs, which descended en masse, seemingly everywhere. They were reported by observers in all Island towns and caused quite a stir, as they are one of the most colorful and noticeable birds to return in the spring.

Orioles are attracted by halved oranges: the birds love to come to eat and drink nectar from them. It is a wild and crazy sight to watch several orioles squabbling over oranges, especially since there is an uncanny resemblance between the color of the birds and the fruit. Plus, when orioles arrive this early in the season, before the deciduous trees have leafed out, they stand out, easy to see as they sing from the tops of trees and the ends of branches. "They're back," was heard from observers Island-wide and the bird line lit up with calls about these spectacular black-and-orange birds.

The orioles were far from the only returning migrants that were back in numbers. Gray catbirds, feisty, noisy, ubiquitous birds that breed on the Island, also dropped out of the night sky in considerable numbers. These birds belong to the Family Mimidae, the Mimids, of which there are two others that occur on the Island. The family name is derived from the songs of birds in this family; they mimic or imitate other birds' songs, some species more successfully than others.

The catbird is the least successful mimic, certainly in comparison to the most well-known member of this family on the Island - the northern mockingbird. Catbirds make a variety of sounds during their prolonged singing but never really make it musically. There is a squeaky, creaky aspect to their song, punctuated by the call for which the bird is named - "meeeeooooow" - periodically interspersed.

Songsters and new arrivals
Another relative, the brown thrasher, is also back and they are singing in scrubby habitat all along the south shore of the Island. They can be recognized by their song: they repeat every phrase twice, then switch to a new one, give it twice, and so on. The champion of the group is the Northern mockingbird. These birds are persistent songsters and hands down are champions at singing. They can and do imitate every bird, indeed every noise, in their vicinity. Listening to a mockingbird for 15 minutes will give the long-time birder a good idea of what other species are around as the mockingbirds' imitations of their songs will betray their presence.

Lots of other migrants and newly arrived breeding birds appeared as well, including black-billed cuckoo, eastern kingbird, great crested flycatcher, more eastern phoebes, scarlet tanager, blue-headed vireo, warbling vireo, yellow warbler, black-and-white warbler, black-throated green warbler, Parula warbler, and a slew of others. The point is that lots of birds of many species poured in on the light to moderate southwest winds and made their presence known on that Mexican Holiday - Cinco de Mayo. More unusual was a white-crowned sparrow at Katama in Edgartown visiting the feeders of Debbie Carter. She also has a male and female rose-breasted grosbeak at her feeders.

This was the largest movement of land birds this early in the season that this writer has seen in more than 25 years of birding on the Island.

Interesting sightings
One of the most mysterious and hard to find nocturnal birds that occurs here is also back. They feed after dark and fly about capturing large moths in direct flight. This is a hard way to make a living but they are one of the "coolest" birds one can attempt to see. The whip-poor-will, a long-distance migrant that breeds in ever fewer numbers everywhere due to habitat fragmentation (i.e. development) has returned and been heard calling. Caitlin Jones heard one calling on the night of May 4 on Middle Road near the West Tisbury/Chilmark town line and Tom Rivers heard one off of Tea Lane in Chilmark on the same night.

Last a quick story about turkey vultures, a species experiencing a major change in status on the Island. These birds were essentially unknown on the Island 20 years ago. Ten years ago they started appearing regularly and the first nest was found about eight years ago. Now they are resident with small numbers spending the winter, more arriving in the spring. They have become a routine sight.

On May 1, Randi Rynd of Tisbury noticed a dead raccoon on the edge of a dirt road near her house. The following day she was surprised to find not one but 8 to 10 turkey vultures feeding at the carcass. They picked it clean in short order. Nature's undertakers, they are very proficient at finding and removing dead animals from the environment, helping to prevent the spread of all sorts of things. While not what any of us would want for a meal, the birds provide a valuable and much-needed service.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

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