Dimorphic sea ducks. Photo by E. Vernon Laux
The mass of birds flying over and sitting on the water include dimorphic sea ducks - common eiders, surf scoters, and black scoters.Take out a field guide and a hand lens and see what you can find in this photo. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Sea change

By E. Vernon Laux - October 12, 2006

The Columbus Day Weekend has traditionally been one of the finest of the year for birding; this year was no exception. Despite some strong winds, courtesy of the passing of a massive storm system way out in the Atlantic, the birding was excellent. Visiting birders performed a dedicated "sea-watch" from Wasque on a couple of mornings last week in strong winds and had great results. Peregrine falcons were widespread and on the move with as many as six in the air at one time at the cliffs this past weekend. The season is ripe with possibilities.

On Monday, Oct. 9, a big surprise in the form of a magnificent frigate bird spent most of the afternoon, hanging in the wind as if a kite on a string, over Tuckernuck Island about 10 miles east/southeast of Wasque in Edgartown. These large birds, specialists at kleptoparasitism, which essentially is chasing other birds and stealing their food (or catching and eating the bird), are not well thought of by other birds. Big, fast, and with a bad attitude, they are the scourge of other sea birds around the equator. The visitor may stop by the Vineyard, but it had not been seen here by late Monday.

Another even more surprising bird for the region was found in Barrington, R.I. on Saturday, October 7, in the form of a small southwestern U. S. ranging warbler called a Virginia's warbler. There had been a Virginia's warbler a couple of weeks earlier in Maine, essentially the first time this obscure bird had ever been seen in New England during the fall migration. This is a head's-up for birders on the Island: this is what has to be considered an invasion of this species so bone up on what they look like.

Because it is the end of the season, there are also many more visitors, end-of-the-season tourists, and others closing up houses, partaking of clearance sales, than on other weekends and the Island is crowded, the boats full. Increasingly there are also birders here, coming to the Island specifically to bird on this past weekend. This makes the coverage "Island-wide" much more extensive than at other times. Indeed, birders reported sightings of birds from Cape Pogue and Wasque on Chappaquiddick in Edgartown, to the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah and all points in between.

Those of us who bird the Vineyard are spoiled as to the realities of birding inland or elsewhere. While we may complain that it has been a little slow, for visiting birders, the place is red hot and they may in fact be enjoying their best day birding, ever, on what I might consider a ho-hum day. Our perspectives are different, and there is no doubt that I have been spoiled rotten by getting to bird on this fabulous Island as much as I have for the past 30 years.

Unusual sightings

No major, off-the-charts type rarities were seen this past week, but lots of fairly rare birds were detected. These are more of the usual-suspect rarities that occur irregularly in small numbers most years but not every one. Birds in this category that were seen this past week and weekend include Western kingbird, dickcissel, orange-crowned warbler, yellow-breasted chat, blue grosbeak, Lark sparrow, Lincoln's sparrow, and clay-colored sparrow. The migrating falcons and accipiters, seen passing all over the Island but more noticeable at exposed points like Wasque, Squibnocket Point, and the Gay Head Cliffs put on a "show" that can not be approached anywhere else. These flights are always best with a northwest wind but happen to a lesser degree with any westerly wind. For birders in Massachusetts, this is far and away the best place to bird at this time of year. For numbers of sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks with the occasional goshawk to the impressive flights of peregrine falcons, merlins and American kestrels, the Island is as good a spot as one can find in New England.

The biggest change occurring now is on the waters surrounding the Island. Participants in the fishing derby see all the bird activity going on and many of these fishermen are becoming quite interested and knowledgeable birders. Literally tens of thousands of sea ducks are arriving in our waters. The loose, long lines of flocks of these birds are quite impressive. Some mornings looking out over the water it seems as if smoke is undulating across the surface. When viewed through binoculars it is seen to be large numbers of eiders and scoters flying low over the water, repositioning themselves for another drift over mussel beds.

The following bird highlights were seen by Mark Lynch and Sheila Carroll visiting from central Massachusetts on the morning of Oct. 6 from Wasque: lots of loons, one greater shearwater, one Leach's storm-petrel, two parasitic Jaegers, two Bonaparte's gulls, and large numbers of sea ducks, multiple peregrine falcons and merlins, and an immature lark sparrow that flew in off the ocean and landed exhausted in the parking lot just in front of their car. They also noted many small flocks of warblers and vireos with four blue-headed vireos in one spot.

The birding is changing rapidly, just like the length of daylight, which is getting shorter fast. 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