Birds

This is a female Red Phalarope, a sea-going sandpiper not usually seen from the Vineyard's shores. This last weekend the strong and unrelenting easterly winds blew many of these birds off course and inshore of their spring migration route. This one ended up riding the breakers near the Little Bridge at Sengekontacket. Photo by Lanny McDowell

May nor'easter

Story by E. Vernon Laux - May 18, 2006

The spring migration is peaking at this latitude in North America, from now thru the next 10 days. The incredible deluge and strong winds coming in from the North Atlantic hammered northbound pelagic (ocean-loving) birds and forced them in along coastal shorelines. For the second year in a row, red-necked and red phalaropes - both sporting fantastic breeding plumage - were forced in on Vineyard shores.

Phalaropes are a unique group of New World sandpipers that have lobed toes. Unlike most shorebirds, they spend their time sitting and spinning on the surface of the water, resembling very small but attractive wind-up toys. They spend their lives on the ocean, generally coming ashore only to breed in the Arctic. Everything about phalaropes is different: they are also dimorphic, meaning the males and females look very different in the breeding season.

Unlike the vast majority of birds, the female is the more boldly marked and much brighter than the male. She initiates courtship, mates, and lays eggs then leaves all the incubation duties to the male, while she goes off looking for another partner to lay another clutch. In a reversal of the more usual breeding strategy, this system seems to work just fine as phalaropes are holding their own.

Last year was the first time during May that northbound phalaropes had been seen in any numbers in breeding plumage. History quickly repeated itself this spring, less than a year after last year's late May storm. Thirteen phalaropes, 11 red and two red-necked were seen on the Nantucket Sound side of the Beach Road in Oak Bluffs on Sunday, May 15. Lanny McDowell of West Tisbury managed to take some excellent photos, one of which graces this article.

Take a look in a field guide at what these birds look like in their different plumages. They breed across the top of the continent in the Arctic, and then disperse widely over both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, spending the winter as far south as Tierra del Fuego off the Straits of Magellan where concentrations of both species can be impressive. They are always of great interest on the Vineyard and rarely seen, so this Mother's Day storm really was a welcome treat for birders - though probably not for the birds.

While out looking for phalaropes and other storm-driven birds, Mr. McDowell discovered two sub-adult little gulls sitting on Sarson's Island in Sengekontacket Pond opposite the Big Bridge on Beach Road on the Edgartown/Oak Bluffs town line. This species is well named, as they are the smallest of the 52 gull species in the world. He spotted them sitting with common terns and watched and waited for a while until the birds flew revealing their distinctive upper wing pattern and true size, both of which were hard to judge in the raging weather at a distance.

The storm blew in all kinds of rarities in Massachusetts with hundreds of phalaropes, both Wilson's and Leach's storm-petrels, Arctic and Caspian Terns, a few alcids, at least twp long-tailed jaegers, a breeding plumage Sabine's gull and an immature albatross species being seen along north side beaches in Cape Cod Bay. It was a great storm for birders. The Vineyard did well to record any of these birds, since the Outer Cape, the Monomoy Islands and Nantucket buffer it from direct, open-ocean access. It has to storm longer and harder for the Island to pick up pelagic species that normally come ashore only at the aforementioned locations during a nor'easter.

Another bird attracted attention during good weather on Beach Road last week, this one a regular but a real traffic-stopper for first-time viewers. Both Barbara Linton of Edgartown and Betty Hilton of Chilmark called in to report a fantastic looking bird with a long orange beak from just off the road on May 6 and 8, respectively. This was an American oystercatcher, a terrific looking large shorebird that continues to increase on the Vineyard. These birds remind one of a toucan or puffin, with their neon- orange beaks and striking black-and-white plumage.

Unfortunately, a pair nesting last year on this road suffered tragedy when a car hit one of them after the young had hatched. Most drivers are woefully unaware of nesting shorebirds on this road and the need to slow down at this season. I found the road-kill oystercatcher in early June and salvaged it so the bird was not a complete loss. It is now in the permanent bird collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in Cambridge along with birds collected by John James Audubon. With evolving technology and DNA studies there is much to be learned from this dead bird so its loss was not a complete waste; but it was preventable.

Lastly, predictably, gratefully, observers have been calling the bird line creating a much more complete picture of bird migration and arrival of breeding birds on the Island. From May 9-12, 10 callers - including Janice and Eddie Belisle and Debbie Carter from Edgartown - reported Baltimore orioles in their yards. Flowering fruit trees or orange halves were provided to keep the birds happy. Debbie Carter at Katama in Edgartown also had an indigo bunting and rose-breasted grosbeaks at her feeders. Hummingbird reports have been numerous and widespread: thanks for all the calls.

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 birds@mvtimes.com.