Impressive migrants

By E. Vernon Laux - October 5, 2006

Migration for most things at this latitude - including birds, butterflies, dragonflies, marine mammals, and fish - has been hitting full stride his past week. On the evening of September 25, there was a massive flight of birds as conditions were ideal. The declining temperatures to the north, the decreasing day length, and the date all combined to create the "perfect night" for nocturnal bird migration. Dawn on September 26 was impressive and flocks of birds were everywhere, no matter where one happened to be.

Most numerous and noticeable were large numbers of flocks of American robins numbering in the several thousands of birds, slightly smaller numbers of cedar waxwings, hundreds of yellow-shafted flickers and lesser numbers of all kinds of other land birds. At the extreme western tip of the Island, the Gay Head Cliffs, there were dizzying arrays of lots of birds of many species. This "funneling point" at the west end of the Island offered visual and audio evidence of the remarkable numbers of birds that were aloft during the just-ended night.

The reason this spot is so good for birding is, like they say in real estate, location times three. In the northeast, during the fall migration, when bird populations are at their annual peak, land birds fly to the coast and follow it south and west to wherever their wintering grounds are, whether along the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean, anywhere in Central America, or on the South American continent. The relatively warm waters keep the ambient temperatures much higher than even a few miles inland, allowing for much greater insect activity and more importantly, many more plants still hold edible fruits, providing food for the birds and a way for the plants to disperse their seeds far and wide.

Many of the birds at this season are able to switch to fruit or berries at this time of year when there are no insects available. This is hugely important for survival as on cold mornings when there is little or no insect activity they are able to meet their energy demands another way. After watching vireos, warblers, flycatchers and other species feeding on insects all spring and summer it is comical to watch a bird like a blackpoll warbler trying to swallow the ripe fruit of a viburnum or choke cherry. The fruit looks so big as the thin-billed warbler manages to choke it down.

Crowded skies in Aquinnah

A few highlights from just the morning of September 26 at the Gay Head Cliffs, most seen by Sally Anderson of West Tisbury and Tom Rivers of Chilmark follow. Driving to the cliffs, the sky and telephone wires are awash in bird life. Flocks of birds, big and small, are in the air at many altitudes, all heading directly west of slightly north of it, heading for the "funnel" that is the cliffs. With so many birds all around it becomes at times frustrating to identify even a small fraction of what is passing by. As a birder, it is probably the best frustration or problem that one could ever imagine.

Male monarch butterfly. Photo by E. Vernon Laux
Male monarch butterflies can be distinguished from females by the thinner wing veination and scent mark - the enlarged black spot on the inner hind wing. Tens of thousands of these migrating butterflies are moving south along the coast from Maine to Rhode Island, and they have been along every Island shoreline over the past 10 days. Photo by E. Vernon Laux
At any rate, there were 10 peregrine falcons seen in a relatively short span. At one point, three peregrines were hanging like kites over the cliffs and one swooped down, captured a flicker in the air, and proceeded to pluck it and eat, on the wing, like some kind raw take-out, to the amazement of the birders. It is thrilling to see what goes on, every day, in the natural word.

Noteworthy were a Western kingbird, as its name implies, a flycatcher from the western U. S., a lark sparrow from the central U. S. and so many other birds it suffices to say that if you weren't there, you missed it.

The good news is that this coming weekend has traditionally been one of the best of the year, sometimes the best weekend of the year to bird on the Island. Wherever one ventures there is lots to see. Falcons are hard to miss, sparrows are passing by in large numbers and waterfowl in the form of tens of thousands of common eiders and all three species of scoters, large blackish sea ducks, are all impressive from many vantage points. This is a great time to bird, the long weekend a welcome respite and the last hurrah for many "summer" activities.

While the flight of birds has been impressive, the awesome spectacle being put on by tens or hundreds of thousands of Monarch butterflies has been the best flight in at least 20 years. These amazing butterflies are heading south to the mountains of Central Mexico, far and away the most remarkable known migration of a butterfly species anywhere on the planet. It is amazing to see these nearly weightless, seemingly fragile, insects soaring by into a stiff southwest wind, at altitude, attempting to make their way to Mexico. Mexico or bust, they have no other option.

Have a great Columbus Day Weekend. If you get out birding, let me know what you see at 508-693-6100, Ext. 33.

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