Birds

A ruddy turnstone. Photo by E. Vernon Laux
A ruddy turnstone in breeding plumage feeding with an out-of-focus semipalmated sandpiper at rear. There are thousands of these sandpipers on Aquinnah shores now, and hundreds of ruddy turnstones.

Krill story

Story and Photo by E. Vernon Laux - August 10, 2006

Nearshore waters around the west end of the Island and along the north shore have filled up with krill in recent weeks, a relatively new phenomenon for the Island, and one that is affecting all wildlife, especially migrating birds. Spectacular numbers of these tiny shrimp-like creatures, numbering in what must be billions, are swarming over a large area, right along the beach and right on or just under the water's surface.

Krill feed on tiny plants in the water column and their numbers explode in a "bloom" when conditions are right. So there is food for the krill, which in turn are becoming food for almost everything bigger than they are.

They are so thick in the water that it seems everything that can eat them is doing so. Striped bass lazily swim through the water, just a few feet off the beach with their mouths open, gathering plenty of protein. The bass remind one of small, finny baleen whales as they feed on krill or small fish just like the much larger mammals.

The krill so dense in the water column that they are being washed onto the shore in incomprehensible numbers, providing a feeding bonanza for migrating shorebirds. Beaches that usually have a few dozen sandpipers in the Town of Aquinnah are now playing host to many hundreds, and in some places thousands, of these most mobile of life forms that are able to respond to seasonally abundant food bonanzas.

From the shores along Menemsha Bight in Lobsterville on Vineyard Sound extending all the way around going west to the Gay Head Cliffs then back southeast from Philbin Beach all the way to Squibnocket Point in Chilmark, the krill are everywhere. They are being washed in with any wave action and as the tide recedes, untold countless numbers are stranded. These are not going to waste as hungry southbound sandpipers and plovers have discovered this "easy pickings" gift of a food source.

The typical sandpiper found along the beaches is the sanderling, a common, familiar, "funny" sandpiper that scurries up and down at the surf line, picking and gleaning food. They seem to constantly tempt fate as they engage in a game of "chicken" with waves; running down to the water's edge as it recedes, then sprinting back just inches in front of a crashing breaker. They are experts and if they misjudge or get fooled by a larger rogue wave if you will, they will fly out of harms way.

Shoreline bird buffet

At any rate, what is most unusual about the birds feeding away in frenzy on these small beached shrimp (the krill) is that there are very few sanderlings. The vast bulk of the thousands of birds involved are the smaller cousins, least and semipalmated sandpipers.

These birds are on their way south, engaged in a lengthy and often protracted migration from the far north to points deep into the southern hemisphere - a vast distance. They congregate at food-rich areas, like the west end and north shore of the Island right now, to fuel up for the long journey ahead. They will feed constantly, needing to double their weight as fast as possible. They store the unused calories as a subcutaneous layer of fat that they are then able to utilize in long nonstop flights.

They discovered the local krill bonanza by accident, most likely, as they were southbound with another destination loosely programmed into their inertial guidance system - their small but remarkable brains.

It is fascinating to watch these small birds as they pack away the krill buffet. There are also other shorebirds and as this continues many other species will see activity of the other birds and join the crowd. Ruddy turnstones are well represented and hundreds of these handsome waders are also enjoying the banquet. There are lots of semipalmated plovers, neatly marked small birds with a short, orange-based beak and black ring around their white breast. A handful of white-rumped and western sandpipers, a lone Baird's sandpiper, some greater yellowlegs, eastern willets, and black-bellied plovers have also been found.

Should this continue for a few more weeks the shorebird spectacle will get really interesting. This concentration of birds on beaches on the west end of the Island has never been seen before. As the bird migration increases in both volume and diversity of species as of this writing it seems possible that any and everything could show up on these currently food-rich areas. There has never been a better time to bring binoculars to the beach despite some of the looks sun worshippers may give you - "Yes I really am looking at the birds!"

Lastly, a head's-up to those who have hummingbird feeders or watch hummingbirds feeding in their yards. Last Sunday, August 6, a male black-chinned hummingbird, a western species was banded and photographed in Brewster on Cape Cod. This is the first western hummingbird to ever be seen in New England in August and it was a handsome, distinctive male. Use binoculars and check all your hummingbirds carefully as there may be more than one species around.

Hummingbirds are very difficult to identify, the females and immatures of many providing an identification nightmare. So be patient and don't worry if you can't figure out what it is; no one can. With a little luck you should be able to get a look at the males' throat, the gorget, and see its true colors. They all look black until the light is just right and then you pick up the iridescent shine. Always take digital pictures if you can of a suspected oddity and give the bird line a call.

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.