Semipalmated plovers. Photo by E. Vernon Laux
Semipalmated plovers are widespread on beaches, tidal flats, and sandbars from now until the middle of September. Many are currently feeding and resting in Aquinnah and along Norton's Point in Edgartown.

Tufted titmice are here to stay

Story & Photo by E. Vernon Laux - August 17, 2006

The birds and birders all change during the middle of August in preparation for the fall migration that has already begun. As the photoperiod, the length of day, starts to rapidly decrease, all life in the natural world responds. For migrant birds, internal clocks signal that the time to eat and gain weight is now, as migration and the upcoming winter is fast approaching.

Resident birds, non-migratory species like black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, and Carolina wrens, are all replacing worn feathers by undergoing a complete molt. Then they familiarize themselves with a home range, exploring, looking and finding all available food, water, and shelter options that they'll require through the impending seasonal changes and that will allow them to survive through the winter months.

A species that is still in the process of colonizing the Island, the tufted titmouse, appears to have had an excellent breeding season. In the past week the species has been reported from locations far and wide across the Island where they had never been seen before. Aspiring young birder Charlie Morano was impressed by a titmouse that appeared at his family's bird feeder, a first for their yard, on August 5. This young man knows his birds and knew instantly what it was and that he had never seen one in the woods of Edgartown before. I expect to see his name in bird journals in a few years time.

Elsewhere, Mary Boak of Vineyard Haven, an Island resident for more than 50 years, was thrilled by the appearance in her yard of one of these small, mouse-colored birds with a tuft on its head. It is not a usual occurrence to find a bird that you had not seen before, in one's familiar surroundings - it is exciting. It strikes a chord in the mind that reminds us we are animals sharing the planet with everything else in the biosphere and that change is ongoing.

Avian wash-ashores

The tufted titmouse is considered a non-migratory species but then in the mid 1970s the species irrupted from more southerly areas and began to expand its range northward. It turns out that many resident species of birds are in fact migratory in the northern parts of a species range. At any rate, titmice loathe water and do not like to fly across it. Not only do they not fly over something as big as Vineyard Sound but even something like the Cape Cod Canal. The waterways act as real physical barriers.

Back in the late 1970s when titmice staged an incursion into the northeast, colonizing Cape Cod, they did not travel straight across the canal. Acting like the small woodland birds that they are, they were observed flying across the canal by utilizing the bridges, flying along the railings and girders. Moving during the daytime, flocks of titmice numbering from 40 to 100 birds were seen flitting through the steel super-structure of both bridges.

The species then rapidly became a common resident on the Cape. It wasn't to long before the Vineyard started experiencing the odd titmouse at a feeder in the winter. It seems doubtful that the original colonizers flew across; it seems likely that they caught a ride on one of the ferries and when near shore made a beeline for the nearest trees. At any rate after a decade of single birds and the documenting of a hybrid, a cross between a black-capped chickadee and a titmouse - a "chickmouse" if you will - the species established a foothold and this summer is rapidly establishing itself as a vibrant part of the Vineyard avifauna.

Sky traffic is heavy

Every day and every night, birds are on the move. No matter which way the wind blows migrant birds will be on the move. Most rewarding at this season is to arise early after the passage of a cold front. Perfect conditions the night before include a lovely clear evening with a light northwest wind accompanied by the sky full of stars and amongst them numbers of migrating birds. Head out to a favorite spot and be amazed at what the night has delivered.

A great variety of warblers, vireos, flycatchers and other woodland nesting species are passing us on their way south. Some may stop and stay; most will over-fly the Island, not wanting to be out on the exposed coast, especially adult birds that have migrated in prior years. The great majority of early migrants are adults. As September and October arrive the bulk of the migrants are juveniles, engaged in their first southbound migration. The birding is great now and is only going to keep getting better.

The shorebird bonanza on the shores surrounding the entire town of Aquinnah continues. Although parking is problematic except for town residents, access by bike, bus, or foot is possible. Lobsterville beaches are swarming with semipalmated and least sandpipers, semipalmated plovers, and small numbers of ruddy turnstones and other shorebirds, all feasting on grounded krill. The tidal flats Island-wide are very productive now and will continue to be thru mid-September.

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