Whimbrels. Photo by E. Vernon Laux
On Saturday at sunset, these juvenile whimbrels allowed fairly close approach from the photographer who was very likely the first human these birds had ever encountered.

End of summer means fantastic birding

Story and Photo by E. Vernon Laux - August 24, 2006

The last week of August fast approaches, and with it comes some of the finest birding of the year to the Island. The next couple of weeks offer a window - a very specific time frame predicated by historical observation documenting periods of occurrence and weather - for many scarce or rare migrant species to appear both on the beaches and in the fields and thickets. It is an exceptional time to be out in the field and one not to be missed.

The end of August also has the added benefit for birders of witnessing a dramatic decrease in the numbers of people on the Island as college students head back to school and vacationers head home. Less people, more birds: a good combination. The upcoming 10 weeks are the highlight of the year for both numbers and diversity of species.

Not only is the prevailing weather typically perfect, it is punctuated by the occasional strong front or storm which makes the birding even better. Add in migrating butterflies and dragonflies, as well as abundant fresh vegetables and feeding game fish, and the fall becomes the premiere season to enjoy the Island's bounty and beauty.

There is so much to do and see, so many areas to explore that deciding where to go birding can be a difficult choice. This is a very big Island for birders to attempt to cover, with varied and diverse habitats. Should I check the Gay Head Cliffs at first light or scan the ocean from Wasque, check out the migrant land birds at the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank's Waskosim's Rock or head into the state forest? So many places, so little time. These are the problems I would like to get used to!

Birds galore!

At any rate, it really doesn't matter what you decide as long as you get out in the field. There are birds, big and small, common and otherwise, to be seen at this season no matter where you go. I have a weakness for places with lots of shorebirds or places that act as migrant "traps" or funneling points. These are areas where as the light of day comes up, birds that have been flying during the night tend to congregate, locations that concentrate them in much greater numbers than say a large, continuous woodland with no edges, no borders to contain the migrants. The entire Island is like this on some days, with the shoreline acting as the boundary.

For example, Central Park in New York City is a classic migrant "trap" both in the spring and fall migration. As the day dawns, birds overflying this vast metropolis look down on a mass of steel, glass, and macadam - the concrete "jungle." There, in the midst of steel towers and the completely man-altered landscape is another man-made landscape but this one is bursting with trees and greenery in the form of the park in the middle of Manhattan Island. All the birds descend and make their way into the park which can, on days after big flight nights, have world-class birding right downtown.

This is all fine and good if you live or work in the city, but accessible birding spots that act as magnets for migrants are found in many other locations as well. The coastline and especially outer islands, read this as the Vineyard, host a disproportionate amount of migrants at times, because if they don't lay over here, they may not survive. The open ocean means nothing but trouble for them, so when southbound birds hit the coastline, they turn west to follow it south and west.

Perfect geography

The Vineyard is geographically designed perfectly to intercept large numbers of migrants that are then "funneled" to an ever-decreasing land mass as they head west, culminating at the Gay Head Cliffs. The extreme western tip of the Vineyard is one of the finest locales to witness bird migration from now through early November, anywhere on the North American continent. This is a fortuitous thing for people interested in birds that live here. It is also the cause and reason that many birders from elsewhere come to visit the Island during the fall migration, to witness the spectacle, to actually see birds migrating.

To see the flight of birds, swirling around in altitudinal layers, starting from eye-level all the way up to out of sight in binoculars, is a moving experience. The species range from loons to sparrows, running the gamut of species that occur. There are days later in the season when spectacular movements of migrant hawks occur. Almost any species can occur and a dawn trip to the cliffs is ever-changing, with no two visits ever being the same. It's an experience that anyone with an interest in the natural world should make an effort to see.

The best time to go is after the passage of a cold front. The absolute best time would be after a cold front that cleared out a storm that had lasted for several days or more, effectively bottling up migrants that were waiting for favorable conditions to move out on. Some years during the fall season these conditions happen a number of times, in other seasons perhaps just once or twice.

Nonetheless, despite our best efforts to understand and predict nocturnal migration, some mornings when there is no indication anything special went on the night before turn out to be very good. So, "If in doubt, go look," is a good motto for fall birding. Besides, as in fishing, it is true that if you don't go fishing you won't catch any fish, if you don't go look for birds you won't see any.

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