An immature blue grosbeak that was photographed near the Gay Head cliffs.
An immature blue grosbeak that was photographed near the Gay Head cliffs. These southern birds are occasionally seen on the Island in the fall, where they frequent weedy fields. Often they are detected by their distinctive "metallic chip" call-note. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

October, stuff of dreams

By E. Vernon Laux - October 19, 2006

The Vineyard in mid-October is such a fantastic place to be - especially for those of us enamored of birds - that anywhere else in New England is a distant second. The Gay Head Cliffs are a paradise for birders, and the volume and variety of the bird migration is mind-boggling. A bad day birding New England's largest Island is better than a great day almost anywhere else. While this sounds completely biased, it is the voice of experience, local knowledge, and familiarity with other areas speaking when I say it is the truth.

Locals have little to compare it to and some don't realize how exceptional birding here really is, because they take it as a matter of course. Visiting birders are so overwhelmed at the number and variety of birds that they are blown away. There is nothing to compare it to except the spectacular flights at Cape May, N.J.

The difference being that at Cape May the flight of birds is larger, the number of observers is by an order of magnitude of at least 100 times greater and the birds are spread over a much larger area. Scenically, there is no comparison. The unspoiled, rural character of the cliffs, so unique, elevating one so that the visibility is unlimited as opposed to the over developmentally challenged and much larger area that is Cape May County, New Jersey. It is a completely different experience and from this writer's perspective, as well as many other observers, not comparable.

All of the above reinforces and makes obvious to the most casual observer what yours truly -‑admittedly a completely biased birder - knows and thinks about birding the Vineyard and the Gay Head Cliffs in particular. It is hands down the best spot on the eastern seaboard to witness visible bird migration. Part of the attraction is its "hard to reach" status. People from away, observers that have never been to the Island because they cannot simply drive here, have no concept of how easy to reach this awesome spot really is.

The Vineyard transit bus service makes getting to Woods Hole, taking the ferry, buying a day transit bus pass and birding wherever one wants, so easy that it is fortunate this piece is not appearing in a Boston paper. It is amazing talking to people on Cape Cod or in Boston who have never even been to the Island. The ferry throws a big kink in their thinking, and of course many Islanders prefer it this way. Be glad there is no bridge because it makes people have to want to get here, thereby keeping the Island feeling alive.

The point of the prior diatribe is that the Vineyard has fantastic birding in October. The best hawk flight anywhere, a great sea duck migration, a concentrated diurnal land bird migration and nocturnal migration all along the south and north shores coming to a "funneling" point at the Gay Head Cliffs that puts all the migrants in a very tight area as they climb for altitude before continuing west to the mainland. It is a natural history show of the first order, demonstrating visibly that birds are on the move over a vast area.

This past weekend the weather was perfect. The morning of Oct. 14 dawned clear, cool, and windless. Some 20 birders, most from off-Island but also including Islanders Lanny McDowell and Sally Anderson of West Tisbury and Rose Styron of Vineyard Haven, took a field trip to the cliffs. All were pleased they made the trip. A hard frost was evident in the State forest and ice was windshields away from the shore. The bird migration was running on high and a steady stream of migrants continued to depart the Island, heading west from dawn until early afternoon.

The most abundant bird species was the blue jay. Thousands of these colorful, slow-flying, diurnal migrants, were everywhere from just over the treetops to flying at very high altitudes, mere dots in the binoculars, as they headed towards Cuttyhunk Island and the mainland beyond. These birds are moving south from the Canadian Maritime Provinces as well as other areas to the north, fleeing the approaching winter and food shortages. Some will continue south to the Carolinas, others will stop and stay north of there.

The next most common migrants were yellow-rumped warblers, which staged a major flight with small numbers of palm and blackpoll warblers thrown in. Several hermit thrushes, an immature female extremely dull Cape May warbler, a bland pine warbler, several indigo buntings and lots of sharp-shinned hawks (50 plus) were also seen from the immediate cliff area. Flocks of house finches, American goldfinches and lots of northern flickers and American robins were also in the mix. There were birds all over the place and it was anything but dull.

There were lots of migrant sparrows including a clay-colored, several Lincoln's sparrows, handfuls of field, white-crowned, dark-eyed junco and white-throated as well as lots of swamp, song, Savannahs, and chipping sparrows. The diversity and viewing conditions were ideal. Monarch butterflies were in small numbers as well as a few red admirals, a mourning cloak, lots of orange sulphurs, cabbage whites, and a butterfly that was new to this observer in the form of a worn white-m hairstreak seen in a field in Chilmark.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

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