Two birds in two hands, this photo, taken recently at the Wing Island Banding Station in Brewster, illustrates the sexual dimorphism in American goldfinches-the brighter bird a breeding plumage (alternate plumage) male. These small finches are abundant all over the Vineyard and making a lot of noise now as they sing incessantly and move around in bounding, undulating flight.


Story & Photo By E. Vernon Laux - May 25, 2006

The end of May is a terrific time, not only for looking at birds but for any and every outdoor activity. The return of so many things, absent during the cold winter months and seemingly never-ending spring on the Island, makes this an enjoyable, sensory-overload time of year. The sounds, smells, tactile feelings and sights all converge to energize the body's senses, shifting gears for the upcoming season. For birders, the spring migration is at its peak from before you read this until the end of the month.

The migrant bird species that one encounters are the ones that go the furthest north and conversely winter the furthest south. These hemisphere-trotting birds are remarkable in so many ways that the more one learns about them the more respect and admiration one acquires for their stunning life styles. No moss growing under their quick and tiny feet!

Migrant land birds try to stay away from the relatively cold coastline in the spring migration. They do this because the vast ocean full of cold water provides no suitable resting, feeding, or protective features of any kind. The ocean itself is not only extremely dangerous to a small insectivorous bird but it is filled with smart winged predators in the form of jaegers and gulls that actively pursue land birds, which have nowhere to hide out over the ocean. Additionally, because the cold ocean effect on the coast retards the timing of emerging vegetation and accompanying food resources in the form of insects, the birds have learned, or evolved, to migrate inland if at all possible.

Push to the finish

That said, what happens where we are in time right now, near the end of the migration? The birds' internal clocks, always ticking, push them to arrive on the breeding grounds at the same time as other members of their respective species, so they start to push north at all costs. As they near the finish line at their breeding ground, the one critical destination in their annual mission to perpetuate their species, they throw caution to the wind. To be able to breed, they do whatever they have to in order to get where they are going.

Which means, as we reach the end of the migration, that birds that waited for favorable conditions, followed traditional routes, stayed away from the hostile coast and generally played it safe are now hell-bent on getting to their breeding grounds and are taking the most direct route. So birding on the coastline gets very interesting in late May and early June when the greatest variety and number of birds is possible.

Historically, it is also a fantastic time to encounter hard-to-find and rare birds. These are birds that do not want to linger, that may only be seen briefly as they continue to move northward both during the day and at night. Time is of the essence for these Neotropical migrants. The Memorial Day weekend brings lots of people (birders amongst them) and birds to the Island. If you are so inclined, keep binoculars with you and stay alert to the possibilities. There will be birds for the viewing wherever you go.

Make way for fledglings

Many resident birds are feeding young in the nest and baby birds will be emerging, called fledging, from many songbird nests over upcoming days and weeks. Some birds, American robins, Carolina wrens and black-capped chickadees have already fledged young and will soon go about the business of renesting for a second time. It always seems odd that while local breeding birds are about to fledge young that many species still have 1,000 or more miles to go before they arrive at their breeding grounds. The natural world is marvelous and so diverse; adaptations of every kind exist and continue to change.

It seems, inevitably, that during the upcoming weeks, all of us will have one or more encounters with baby birds. It may be a nestling that is on the ground, a still flightless young bird clinging to a branch is near the front door or any of several variations. The best thing, really the only thing you can do, is to make sure that any cats in the area are inside, and to try to keep the area as undisturbed as possible.

Adult birds stay in contact with young birds by sound. They know where the bird is and will either continue to feed it until it can feed itself or abandon it for some perfectly good reason known to the adults of whatever species it is. Contact with humans can only be detrimental to the birds and by "saving" the bird it actually does the reverse. Let the natural world operate with as little human interference as possible. This benefits all creatures involved.

The birding has been very good and many enthusiastic new observers have shared their observations of Baltimore orioles, gray catbirds and other birds that they are seeing for the first time. Congratulations and welcome to a pursuit that can be practiced anywhere and for a lifetime. Thanks for your calls. As you become familiar with the common birds and start to notice them more, hopefully learning their songs, you will be startled at how many Gray catbirds (and Eastern towhees, song sparrows, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, etc.) actually live here in the summer. The more you know, the more there is to learn. It is fun, easy, cheap, and portable.

Lastly, so many birds of so many kinds have been seen that it would be confusing to list them all. Suffice it to say that anyone out looking for birds has not been disappointed. The most unusual bird seen this past week was a male hooded warbler, a southern wetland-loving bird that is always scarce on the Vineyard. Lanny McDowell of West Tisbury found and photographed a male on May 21 at the Land Bank's Waskosim's Rock Sanctuary off of Middle Road in Chilmark. This species is being detected more frequently in the past decade, not only on the Vineyard but in the southeastern portion of Massachusetts. Its range is slowly expanding north and east and the possibility of this species breeding is tantalizing and close.

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