Birds

This dunlin, in almost full breeding plumage, was one of about 40 individuals still present on Norton's Point in Edgartown last week. These engaging Arctic-nesting shorebirds will have headed north by the time you read this, and hopefully they are laying eggs by now.

Perpetuating the species, aka nesting season

Story & Photo by E. Vernon Laux - June 15, 2006

The middle of June is an interesting time for birds and birders. It is time to observe behavior as migration is over for the time being and all birds that are going to attempt to nest this year are where they need to be. The breeding season is the easiest time to become familiar with resident birds. If you want to know what they are, the birds you see every day, all you have to do is pay attention and spend a small amount of time looking in a field guide.

This is easier than one might imagine and is facilitated by the desire to spend as much time out of doors as possible. The birds are essentially "tied" to a routine, a predictable schedule that makes them fairly easy to observe at this season. So once you are sure that the bird you are seeing is an American robin, and you observe it, learn its song, you have got that one down and will recognize it whether you see or hear it.

The nesting cycle - starting with courtship and followed by nest building, laying of eggs, incubating eggs, feeding young, and, for many species, re-nesting after the first brood is fledged - is a wondrous part of the natural world. Once discovering where the birds are nesting, feeding, courting, or bathing in your own back yard it becomes a matter of observing. With a little patience and persistence one can learn their various plumages, behaviors, habits, and vocalizations.

Within a matter of a few days an observer can readily learn the identity of all birds visiting your immediate area. Soon the birds call notes start making sense and in a couple of weeks an observer can learn and be "dialed in" to virtually all bird activity in your immediate area. The birds' calls and alarm notes will alert the attentive observer to what is going on in the neighborhood.

Much like a dog barking or pea hens alerting humans to the arrival of someone at their home or on the property, listening to local birds can allow a human observer to learn much more about what is happening in the natural world than could ever be detected by a human observer unaided by bird sounds and actions. Swallows uttering alarm calls and scrambling into action in a flock are indicative of either a hawk or an owl, generally a Cooper's hawk nowadays on the Vineyard, being spotted nearby by the sharp-eyed swallows.

Crows, making a racket and flocking, indicate something rather major going on in the neighborhood. Since crows get up to all sorts of mischief it is hard to say exactly what is going on but certainly it merits investigating. Virtually all resident birds have an alarm call that when learned will greatly increase your local awareness of what is going on.

Once one is familiar with the alarm notes of American robin, gray catbird, song sparrow, black-capped chickadee or any other birds nesting nearby, it opens a whole new world. For example the progress of a domestic cat as it moves is transmitted by alarm calls by panicked birds that have nests with chicks or recently fledged young in the area. Danger is everywhere for a nesting bird and there is a constant struggle between its flight response (the usual method of escape) and its desire to protect its young.

Ultimately, the birds that are breeding today are the most successful birds ever and inherited traits make them act as they do. In the end if a nest is about to be discovered by a predator it is better to flee and nest another day. Disturbance around the nest site is dangerous for the birds and calls it to the attention of mammalian predators. The nesting season is rather typical this year with lots of varying weather. The recent heavy rains and cold temperatures have made it very hard on adult birds trying to feed hungry nestlings.

In the bird world, there have been few surprises on the Island of late. Turkey vultures continue to be widespread and are being reported in small groups of from three to 12 birds, Island-wide. A bird that was essentially unknown just a couple of decades ago in this area, the species continue to push further north every year. They are now commonly found in Maine and are making forays into New Brunswick, Canada in the past couple of years. The first nest was discovered almost 10 years ago and certainly many pairs are now nesting.

They are large impressive birds that get peoples' attention. A group of these birds soaring low overhead, circling effortlessly, are hard to ignore. Even people not previously interested in birds get excited about seeing these distinctive bald carrion feeders.

On the beaches, tern chicks have hatched, piping plovers and American oystercatchers have young and the fishing for bass and blues has been quite good. Summer is here, the people are back, and the birds are totally involved in making more birds. Should you have a close encounter of the bird kind, help them out and minimize any human (dog, cat) disturbance.

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.