American golden plovers. Photo by E. Vernon Laux
American golden plovers breed on Arctic tundra in Alaska and Canada and winter on the pampas of Argentina. Their incredibly long migratory route is elliptical: they follow different routes in the spring and fall. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

The fall migration: bounty for birders

By E. Vernon Laux - August 31, 2006

While the arrival of Labor Day Weekend means the end of the summer and back to school and is generally regarded as a sad time for some, it is eagerly anticipated and looked forward to by birders. With its arrival begins the finest birding of the entire year for those of us that live along the eastern seaboard. On Martha's Vineyard, the next couple of months are all good, with each day a new adventure in the field. Literally millions of birds are on the move, and the populations of all species are at their annual peak with the addition of young first-time migrants.

If for some horrible reason you could only go birding for one day or one weekend in the entire year then it would be a toss-up, depending on what species one favors, between Labor Day and the Columbus Day weekends. Both are always great and occasionally, when the weather sets up just right, they are off the charts with amazing numbers of birds migrating.

The best place on the Island to be overwhelmed is at the extreme western tip of the Island, the Gay Head Cliffs. It is an amazing spot where the birds can run hot and cold. I have been there at dawn with not a migrant in sight and none being heard. Then, as if a switch had been thrown, literally thousands of birds begin to appear overhead, all heading from east to west in what can only be described as a mass exodus of birds heading back to the mainland. This sight is not something one forgets.

It not only gets in the blood, it's probably also recorded somewhere in the deep recesses of our inherited genetic information - a deep, subliminal sense hidden in the billions of memories and important shared information that our species has kept and passed on in ways we have yet to understand. On a surface level of consciousness it is something that is hard-wired into my particular brain. I know I am not alone.

Get out there!

Enough waxing philosophical, this is the time to enjoy the Island, the birds, the weather, the fishing, the vegetables, the suddenly much reduced traffic and ease of parking - the fall on the Vineyard. The water temperatures are warm, the swimming is excellent, and birds are wherever one happens to be and has a chance to look at them. It is worthwhile to arrange one's schedule to plan walks or before work short visits to favorite areas. The Island is bursting with birdlife and many species of warblers, vireos and flycatchers that are normally quite unusual here are at their peak of occurrence.

This is not the time to be without an essential tool of the trade, namely binoculars. If you have a pair, keep them with you as they are not useful at home in their case. Like any tool they are only useful if you have them at hand. If you don't have a pair you should look into getting one. Birds seen through binoculars, magnified so that they appear 7 to 10 times closer, really come into focus (pun intended).

Prices for binoculars seem to be continually inching down as the quality gets better. Many well-known and reputable manufacturers are producing fine optics for about $200 whereas just a few short years ago you really needed to spend $800 to get a decent pair. I will advise further about binoculars before the holidays as they are essential and make for the best gift.

A vast array

There is so much interesting activity that picking and choosing what I think is most noteworthy is difficult. The water temperatures have been warm, which makes me think that perhaps the manatee that was seen in Woods Hole and then in Rhode Island last week may not have been as crazy as we think. Also called sea cows, these marine mammals are a threatened species that normally occur in coastal Florida.

A dedicated pelagic birding trip on Saturday, August 26, out to the edge of the continental shelf, specifically Hydrographers Canyon, found three white-faced storm-petrels, a tropical species only seen singly in these offshore waters before. They also watched a 10-foot circumference manta ray as it "flew" by just below the surface and then breached, amazing all aboard.

Back ashore, a handful of American golden plovers have been seen in the fields at Katama and there are lots of shorebirds in many locations. The rain on the morning of August 28, as this was being written, is expected to bring to ground lots of "hard to find on the Island" shorebirds, as the date and back door cold front behind this weather make conditions ideal for species like Hudsonian godwit, Baird's sandpiper, and buff-breasted sandpipers to appear.

These birds, once seen, rarely linger on the Island and the best time to get them is right after the rain ends. This is the only time of year that they are even a possibility. You can't see these birds if you stay home, just as armchair fishermen don't often catch much. 'Tis the season for great birding, so make the best of it. If you have any sightings or questions, please let me know what they are by calling the bird line.

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