Birds

Black and Common Terns: Photo by E. Vernon Laux
Black and common terns: The black tern is a freshwater species that is occasionally encountered during migration on the Vineyard. One or more of these birds has been seen sporadically, resting with common terns, along Norton's Point in Edgartown during the past couple of weeks.

Soggy nesting season

Story & Photo by E. Vernon Laux - June 29, 2006

May and June combined to become the rainiest in our area for any consecutive two months since records have been kept. That is staggering when one considers the cumulative amount of water dumped during a major hurricane or nor'easter, or multiple storms, over any couple of months during the past 100-plus years. The records back up what many have been grumbling about - the weather has been bad. It seems not a weekend has passed without some torrential rain.

Last weekend was a weather disaster with intermittent tropical downpours laced among steady rains. For breeding birds, which comprise at least 95 percent of birds on-Island at this time, it makes things very difficult. Songbirds are attempting to capture enough food in the form of insects and other invertebrates to feed rapidly growing young.

Those voracious young, in the best of times, are insatiable, and for both parent birds the procurement of food for them is all-consuming. When conditions deteriorate as has happened during recent prolonged periods of rain, with little or no sun, insect activity diminishes and it becomes harder to find enough food to feed all the young.

It is hard to tell at this point what the impacts are for local breeders. Nesting success is always hard to ascertain for songbirds. They are secretive, they depend on stealth while near their nest, and the vegetation is so dense that to get any kind of big picture is very difficult. What an individual can do is watch the few nests that one is privy to seeing on a daily basis.

The nests that I have been following, American robin, gray catbird, and black-capped chickadee, have all fledged or are about to fledge young. A contributing factor, greatly aiding these species this year, despite the weather, is the abundance of all the caterpillars from the various moth infestations. Most years, this weather would have proved disastrous, but with the superabundance of these hairless caterpillars providing sustenance, the birds have fared well.

The birds most affected by the inclement weather are species that are dependent on flying insects for food. All the swallow species are particularly sensitive to weather that grounds flying insects, their only source of food. This is especially critical with young swallows to feed in the nest, and it seems likely that the rains have been hard on resident swallows and their breeding success.

Rain also is hard on birds like ospreys and red-tailed hawks, visual hunters. The obscuring rain makes seeing prey difficult and flying, hard. Obtaining food at this critical time for rapidly growing young is difficult, and the adults do the best they can. Time will tell how all this rain has affected these top-of-the-food-chain avian predators.

For human residents, while certainly not what vacationers hope for and tough on sales of sun-block, it is nonetheless great for local merchants as the downtown areas are crowded with curious shoppers forced to sublimate their beach-going urges.

Regardless of the weather (which one has no control over), observers were out looking for birds. This past week has provided some noteworthy and surprising observations.

While birding at the southwest corner of Chappaquiddick in Edgartown, on June 21, Jim and Marcia Adelstein and Bruce and Marcia Fowle spotted 3 birds swimming along the edge of the mid-tide grass. One bird was obviously an adult, accompanied by two half-sized birds, the young. They observed the birds' long bills, rusty necks, and swimming behavior and realized they were not anything they were familiar with. After checking in their Peterson field guide, they felt certain that what they were watching was a family group of clapper rails. These saltmarsh-loving birds are scarce on the Island and are probably very rare breeders. There may have been a nesting pair at Lobsterville in Aquinnah 6 years ago, but the species is always scarce here as its preferred habitat is relatively scarce. This may be the first actual sighting of what appears certain to be a nesting clapper rail.

Herb and Laura Roskind, seasonal residents of East Chop in Oak Bluffs and a group of a dozen guests accompanied this writer on a birding trip in Edgartown on June 24. Despite getting caught in torrential downpours and getting thoroughly drenched, the group had a great time and managed to find a very rare bird in the form of a Sandwich tern. It was found with a handful of common and roseate terns at close range at Eel Pond. The size, black legs and long bill with a yellow tip were all seen before the torrential rain made photographing this handsome and scarce southern tern impossible. Several American oystercatchers with young, eastern willets, snowy and great egrets and a laughing gull were also seen.

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.