Birds

More often heard rather than seen, yellow-billed cuckoos are notoriously shy and hard to spot up in the foliage canopy. Yellow-bills, along with the very similar black-billed cuckoos, are currently feasting on the emerging caterpillars that are driving homeowners nuts these days. Photo by Lanny McDowell

Migration slows

Story by E. Vernon Laux - June 1, 2006

The passing of the Memorial Day Weekend marks the last gasp, the last big push of the spring migration. As coastal observers, Vineyard birders have learned to be guardedly optimistic in the spring. Some years we get quite a few birds; other years we don't. This spring was typical; most mornings were fairly quiet with a few new arrivals.

The only appreciable mini-waves of birds detected occurred on the mornings of May 5, 17, and 27. Nonetheless, with all the returning breeding birds, the foliage not yet completely emerged, and a small but steady mix of more northerly breeding migrants, the birding was rewarding. The arrival of breeding species each spring is a pleasure to be savored and enjoyed.

The birds arrive and immediately claim a territory by singing profusely. Individual birds' songs are distinctive, not unlike a fingerprint. Bird song at only this particular season makes this time of year the favorite of many observers.

It is good for land birds to stay away from the coastline in the spring and they do a good job of staying inland. The best chance for a fall-out on the Vineyard is late in the spring season. Historically, the best time has been the Memorial Day Weekend, for numbers and variety during the northward migration. While it is exciting to witness waves or fall-outs of birds in the spring, undoubtedly this is bad for the birds involved as in their last-minute haste to arrive synchronously with others of their kind on the breeding grounds; many perish in the sea.

European goldfinch makes cameo

So while the weekend revealed no major surprises for warblers and flycatchers, the past week did provide a major surprise. Late on the afternoon of May 23, Randi Rynd of Tisbury was shocked by the sight of an adult European goldfinch among the American goldfinches at her thistle feeder. The adult European goldfinch is a dazzling, incredible-looking, unmistakable bird. Although I have seen rookie observers mis-identify oystercatchers as toucans, I have never seen anyone who gets a good look at this common European species get it wrong.

But in this case the observer, Ms. Rand is experienced, competent, and on the ball enough to immediately try to get digital photos, some further proof of such an unusual visitor. She took a good long look at the bird in her binoculars, checked her field guide and was 100 percent about its specific identification. She managed to get some identifiable shots through her window, but naturally the bird preferred the side of the feeder away from house and a clean shot. Nonetheless she managed to get some very identifiable shots of this most unusual bird.

Surprisingly, the species's status in Massachusetts, given its abundance in Europe and Asia and its highly migratory nature, has been relegated to an exotic escapee. It is true that many were brought to North America and released in the late 1800s. Small populations were established and birds were seen into the 1930s in Massachusetts, then they all died out. No more were seen, the introduced birds all vanished, and that was that.

Then, occasionally one would be seen, usually showing up at a thistle feeder with American goldfinches, about once a decade and for some reason observers still seemed to assume they were escaped cage birds. There have been two other "recent" sightings of this species on the Vineyard. The first was on May 22, 1962, by Duarte, the second on May 16, 1971, by Crane, and now a third record on May 23, 2006.

All, including this last sighting by Randi Rynd, were one- day wonders that stayed briefly, all acted and appeared wild with no damaged flight feathers. Look at the cluster of dates; they make a compelling case for these to be wild birds. It is not too much to think that rarely an individual makes it across the Atlantic Ocean to the East Coast of North America. During the normal course of migrating, orienting, on an unfamiliar continent they head north at precisely the same time in this part of the world, decades apart. The dates show a distinct pattern of occurrence that make this writer think these are in fact truly wild birds that got here on their own two wings. A European goldfinch was seen and photographed on Nantucket a few weeks ago. It could well be the same individual, or another. It is an exciting find and begs for this species's occurrence in Massachusetts to be revisited.

Both black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos have been widespread during this past weekend. Yellow-bills seem to have just surpassed black-bills, locally, in numbers and noisiness, their calls heard from many Island woodlands. Cuckoos feed on caterpillars and even eat big hairy caterpillars, the only native birds to do so. With the outburst of caterpillars on the Island over the past couple of years, numbers of both species are higher than at any time since observers have been keeping track.

Lastly, American oystercatchers and piping plovers have chicks on Island beaches. These incredible birds need our help for a few weeks. Be careful driving in the sand to look out for adults who are always nearby the nearly invisible young. And keep dogs off the beach for the present. The summer season, while not here yet on the calendar, is upon us.

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.