Eastern Willet.
This Eastern willet in breeding plumage was photographed along the shores of Katama Bay in Edgartown. Still scarce up-Island, they can be seen along Beach Road between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, in several locations on Chappaquiddick, and along Norton Point Beach.

Fall migration begins

Story & Photo by E. Vernon Laux - August 3, 2006

The Vineyard has been experiencing the nicest weather and temperatures in the country, as all who vacation here will attest.

The month of July "cooked" most of the continental United States, will temperatures from east to west, north to south, all record-breaking. August will start with heat of unprecedented proportions across most of the country. It has been incredibly hot everywhere, making Island waters more inviting than normal, and they are irresistible, especially right now in early August.

The heat has caused problems for breeding birds, especially in the heartland where many birds have failed to raise young this year. Failed nesters don't linger long before departing for other climes, leaving for wintering grounds earlier than normal. This provides a likely premise for the appearance of the American avocet on July 26 along the shores of Katama Bay in Edgartown that delighted Island birders. It was present for at least four days, but there have been no recent reports, either yay or nay. It is likely that the bird is still enjoying the abundant food present on this shoreline.

Aside from the aforementioned avocet, a breeding plumaged red-necked stint was well seen by an observer on July 24 who went to look for the already-discovered, unusual avocet. A bonus feature of having a rare bird in the area is that other experienced birders arrive and while looking for said bird, find other, often even rarer birds. Alas the stint was not seen again.

Moving out, moving on

For birders, what is normally a slow time has been anything but, with the discovery of the aforementioned rare shorebirds. With the arrival of August, the fall migration has begun in earnest not only for shorebirds, pelagic seabirds, terns and gulls, but for land birds as well. The Island's tidal flats and beaches are teeming with southbound migrant shorebirds. Species that are widespread and easily observed right now are many and include a wide variety of sandpipers and plovers. A walk to a favorite beach or tidal flat with binoculars, or better yet a spotting scope, is a very pleasant way to spend as much time as you have.

Most of these birds will remain for up to two weeks, feeding almost constantly, resting only at high tide, as they must pack in fuel, in the form of subcutaneous fat reserves, which will be used to power them on a nonstop, long-distance flight southward. Many of these birds will depart the Vineyard for Caribbean or South American destinations, making the trip in a two-day, two-night, nonstop flight, burning all that stored energy/fat as fuel. They arrive at their destination weighing about half what they did when they left Vineyard shores. Imagine that kind of weight loss, certainly not possible without killing the patient in our species.

Terns, the smaller, stream-lined version of gulls that feed on small live fish, have recently fledged young and are appearing in much greater numbers than a scant week ago on Island beaches. The young terns look quite different from the adults and are dependent on them for all their food. The young are just learning to fly and now must learn how to dive into the water and grab live fish with their beaks - not an easy task. It takes years to learn how to "plunge-dive" and decades to perfect the technique.

Favored spots often hold hundreds of common terns, dozens of roseate terns; tens of least terns, a few Forster's terns and the occasional black, royal, or sandwich tern often will associate with the expected species. Terns like to congregate with others of their kind. During the next month, it is always a good idea to check flocks of terns carefully for odd species that may be mixed in, roosting or associating with them for safety, company or who knows what. The last (only) breeding plumaged Sabine's gull, an Arctic nesting pelagic gull that disperses across oceans of the Southern Hemisphere in winter, was seen on the Vineyard some 20 years ago, roosting among a flock of terns in late August. Other small gulls and different tern species are likely to be in the mix so it's always worth checking groups of terns.

Monarch butterflies are enjoying a banner year and they can be seen almost anywhere, including flying by at sea. They are streaming north and east along beaches, flying about in fields, especially those that have its food plant, milkweed, and generally are hard to miss. This bodes well for five to eight weeks from now when a different generation of these butterflies will fly by heading south and west, on the way to their wintering area in Mexico.

Land birds are on the move and many Neotropical migrants are already on their way south. Eastern kingbirds, Baltimore and orchard orioles, yellow warblers, northern waterthrushes and many other species are heading south. Blackbirds are flocking and roosting together and generally signs that the breeding season is over and fall is coming are everywhere in the natural world.

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