Birds

Great cormorants: Photo By E. Vernon Laux
American oystercatchers - "beach toucans," if you will - are conspicuous, noisy, and gregarious on beaches and tidal flats. There are approximately 40 nesting pairs on the Vineyard.

Summer days

Story & Photo By E. Vernon Laux - July 6, 2006

Summer has arrived bringing a heat wave and the usual throngs of people escaping the heat. Beaches are the place to be, specifically in the cool, clean waters that interface with the shoreline around the entire Island. The Vineyard is blessed with long, varied, unspoiled shorelines with fabulous beaches, adjacent tidal flats and cool, clean saltwater surrounding it. The shore is the place to escape the heat.

The past 10 days have seen some unusual tropical flotsam arrive on south-facing shorelines to the delight of beachcombers. The rarest wind direction for the Island, southeast prevailed for much of the previous two weeks with all the rainy weather. This delivered things near and on shore usually seen only in late summer or after hurricanes.

Man of War, a tropical jellyfish-like, floating colony of venomous stinging critters, arrived in numbers along beaches. Reactions to these stings are all bad for people. They really affect everyone differently and in some case the reactions are life-threatening. Numbers of coconuts, the seeds of tropical palm trees, have washed ashore as well. They appear to have been in the water a long time and doubtless got here on their own accord.

What this means for birds and birders remains to be seen. It would seem with this much tropical warm water close to shore that perhaps some species of birds that associate with tropical waters might appear farther north as well. I am certainly hoping that the waters south of the Island resemble those of the Bahamas in upcoming weeks for both birds and fish.

The cool places, the beach and inshore waters, are not only the place to be but are also the best place to look for birds at this season. Surprisingly, the first southbound migrants, globetrotting Arctic-nesting shorebirds, sandpipers, and plovers, begin to arrive on our shores right around this date. While birds nesting on-Island are fully engaged in rearing young and completing nesting chores, these birds have devised a different strategy that takes them to the far corners of the planet.

Growing up, moving out

The most mobile life forms on the planet, they are able to take advantage of briefly hospitable areas when they are at their peak of abundance. These birds nest over vast stretches of Arctic tundra in the constant daylight of June. Their young hatch amidst an incredible abundance of insect food. The adults leave the young to fend for themselves after a brief time and head south to feed, rest and grow new feathers as they are bound for the other end of the planet.

Their young remain busy feeding on the abundant insect life, and growing. The adults never feed them, they are completely on their own amidst the abundant insects and they know what to do. They hatch with a covering of fine down that lets these diminutive birds start fast out of the egg. This adaptation, so different from a young songbird hatched naked and helpless that must be kept warm and fed by adults, is called precocial and shorebirds have precocial young. After growing flight feathers, the young birds gather with others of their kind.

These immature birds then must strike out on their first migration using information that was genetically passed on in some mysterious little genetic bird microchip, if you will. It is a wonder and it works as the species continue to undertake staggering annual migrations from one end of the planet to the other.

The water is great wherever one cares to jump in to beat the heat. When temperatures are where they were the past week the water is most inviting, but make sure not to bump into any Man of War. The Island is busy and not just the human inhabitants and visitors. Nesting birds are tirelessly feeding incessantly hungry young. Young birds are fledging and there are seemingly birds everywhere.

Willow flycatchers have also been heard calling in several locations. These drab little flycatchers in the genus Empidonax are the nightmare of many a birder. They all are small greenish birds with wing-bars and eye-rings. They are indistinguishable by sight, as they all look basically identical. However the calls and songs they make are different, so in the breeding season, when the birds are singing it's possible to tell one from another.

The early morning is far and away the best time of day at this season to find land birds. Land birding in the State Forest or on the many Martha's Vineyard Land Bank properties can be most productive before the heat of the day and the wakening of the human juggernaut in early July. The level of bird song is beginning to decrease dramatically and soon the mornings will be much duller in terms of what one hears singing.

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.