Hudsonian godwit with black-bellied plovers and red knots. Photo by E. Vernon Laux
Hudsonian godwit (center, with bill out) with black-bellied plovers and red knots. These long-distance migrants are seen on the Vineyard only once or twice a year. Last week, one was spotted along the shores of Tisbury Great Pond. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Derby birding

By E. Vernon Laux - September 21, 2006

This is a wonderful time of year. The night sky is so clear, so crisp, the planets and stars brilliant points of light, creating a timeless mosaic, that the sky is the stuff of dreams. Sunrises and sunsets are prolonged, colorful, and not to be missed. Bird migration is underway and at full throttle so that even people not normally inclined to notice avian creatures, have close encounters of the bird kind. Every day, every night at this season is a special gift that cannot be replaced and begs not to be missed.

For thousands, the annual fishing derby is the highlight of their year. They plan, save, plot, and then participate in this event, which is about not only fishing but so much more. The chance to be out, along the shore or on the water during the day, after dark, at sunrise or sunset and observe all that is going on in the natural world. Each year I get more calls and e-mails from derby fishermen and women who by their love of being out in nature, find themselves observing more and more of it.

No matter what one is doing in the natural world, it need not be mutually exclusive. In this day and age when multi-tasking and networking are the buzz words in various business settings, in an entirely different way, this is what we all do out in the real world, the natural world. Whether wetting a line, walking in a favorite place, or hanging out in the yard, there are many things to see, hear, and enjoy. For many - and surely I am one of those afflicted - it all has to do with bird life.

This last Monday evening was clear, calm, and magnificent, lending itself to lying outside and gazing up at the night sky. While waxing philosophical in my mind, checking out the little dipper, Mars and the Rings of Saturn, eight satellites and a few meteors, I was listening to the flight calls of small, mainly insectivorous birds, passing overhead. It was not a big flight, but still it impressed some deeply recessed part of my brain, that up in that black, mysterious night sky, birds weighing less than an ounce were undertaking a spectacular, seemingly impossible journey, as a normal, routine part of their existence. This is what they do, superbly.

Derby participants have a rare chance to enjoy not only our finny brethren in the waters but to be out at the peak time for bird migration in this part of the world. By paying attention to the birds that point the way to game fish by pin-pointing baitfish that are driven to the surface, fisherman get to see all sorts of bird life. Wayward land birds that have overshot land and are flying back to the south shore of the Island are often seen. Some have even alighted briefly on the ends of fishing rods, grateful for the perch after a full night and some of the day of flying over hostile ocean waters affording no refuge.

The stories and pictures have accumulated over decades of birding and fishing, fishing and birding, all memorable and woven into the fabric of life, of migration and of this spectacular fall season. Falcons are on the move, the crow-sized peregrine falcon and the smaller merlin, for whom the magician was named, are hard to miss right now if one is along virtually any shoreline. The merlins are a favorite as these small, speedy falcons have an attitude and cannot resist the temptation to harass other larger birds in the area.

Merlins are like small fighter jets with fantastic radar systems in that they fly fast, go from ground-hugging direct flight to vertical climbs and ridiculous dive bombing all the while seeing far better (up to 10 times better) than humans can. Aside from how much fun it is to watch these little rocket ships fly, they cover so much airspace and see so well that they will point the way to other raptors if one stays with them, in the binoculars, which is the only way possible.

A few hours spent on the beach anywhere on the Island, from now through the end of the derby, offers not only the opportunity but a great probability, if one lets their eyes off the end of the line, of seeing one of the natural world's most spectacular flying life forms in the shape of a migratory falcon. They are unforgettable and no matter how many times one has seen them before, they are thrilling to watch. It is another bonus that derby fishermen get by being out there.

There are so many birds passing by now that to list them all would take too much space, be of interest to only a few readers and not reflect the volume of birds currently passing by. The season is changing rapidly and insectivorous birds, warblers, flycatchers, and vireos will soon start to decline as most will be south of us heading to the tropics for the winter. Over the coming weeks the seedeaters, sparrows and finches will appear, as will loons and waterfowl that arrive either to continue further south or spend the winter. There is action all around and almost any bird is possible, at least I like to think the sky is the limit, at the end of 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