Birds

turkey vultures
Nature photographer Julian Robinson says: Apparently, lack of sun plus rain or fog dictates that turkey vultures perch together until the sun breaks through. So it was that finally, at 7 am on a foggy overcast day, my series of visits to an old Victorian homestead on Pine Street, Vineyard Haven, paid off. Shown are four vultures on the widow's walk; a fifth perched on the nearby chimney. Photo by Julian K. Robinson

April showers

By E. Vernon Laux - April 5, 2007

The sky brightened, the temperatures climbed and then came April showers and rain. Despite the persistent dreary weather of the past few days, the clock is running on bird life and the breeding season is coming-like it or not. Their internal biological clocks, when compared to those of humans, run about two million times faster, give or take a million. The time-sensitive, imperative window for nesting is brief at this latitude in the natural world. So despite "dismal" periods of weather all species are preparing to replicate their respective species.

The speed, the pace of life at which birds' live their lives is incomprehensible by our standards. Imagine reproductive organs that provide no benefit to a flying animal as they create excess weight, so they become essentially vestigial organs for 10 months of the year. Then when the time comes for either the males to produce sperm or the females eggs, they increase by as much 100 times by weight. Bird's endocrine systems pump out an increase in hormones that changes everything about the birds' behavior, actions and even the appearance of all their soft parts, their beaks, orbital rings, and leg color. This is called their breeding condition.

Frenetic doesn't begin to describe what is happening in their lives. The need to watch for and avoid all manner of predators, find food and water, defend a territory from others of its kind, sing, attract a mate, court, build nests, lay eggs, incubate young, and rear fast-growing, ever-hungry young - phew! It makes me tired just writing about their annual life cycle.

This description provides just a taste of what a bird's life is like by our standards. I did not even mention the miracle and physical demands of migration, which for a terrestrial, bipedal human is inconceivable, on a twice annual basis. Some birds perform annual feats, which even though we know are true from hard data gathered by banding recoveries or satellite transmitters, seem impossible. Birds, far and away the most mobile of creatures on the planet, are amazing animals.

Local breeding birds are all setting up territories and singing, louder and more frequently, at dawn and dusk, with each passing day. The birds are acting differently than even a week ago, wherever one happens to observe them. American robins are singing in neighborhood yards while intense courtship displays are prevalent among various waterfowl in nearshore waters. American woodcocks' spectacular courtship displays are peaking right now and the birds are persistent in their displays - it is a lovely, lively time of the year.

Turkey vultures, a relatively recent arrival to the Northeast and the Vineyard, continue to increase. The birds can be seen engaging in display flights all over the Island but particularly along the terminal moraine that runs along the north shore from Lake Tashmoo in Vineyard Haven to Prospect Hill in Chilmark. They are also all over around the south shore in Chilmark and the entire town of Aquinnah.

They are here to stay and are likely breeding in many places on the Island, although finding their nests is an exercise in frustration. It is also more than a little exciting as they defend their nests, often under a big log or rock in a small cave by projectile vomiting nasty vulture food and bile secretions much to the misfortune of whatever animal gets hit with it. One does not take looking for a vulture on its nest lightly.

On April Fool's Day, Tom Scott and his wife of Edgartown spotted some vultures and a bald eagle soaring around in a kettle. A kettle in hawk-watching lingo is a group of raptors, circling around, gaining altitude in a rising thermal of hot air, the birds expending virtually no energy because they use the hot air to lift them high into the sky. On sunny days, the Island's many red-tailed hawks can be seen soaring at the edge of vision, even through binoculars, at a great altitude, seeming to enjoy using the rising hot air created by the sun. It sure looks like fun.

Ospreys are back in force now and the serious business of perpetuating their species has them busy. Nests are being tended to; pairs are engaged in courtship flight displays and the piercing, high-pitched calls of the male displaying high in the sky, while dangling a fish in his talons, with the female flying along underneath a few hundred feet watching are a common and daily sight from most Island locations. These large black-and-white fish-eating birds are mesmerizing to observe going about their daily lives.

All sorts of new arrivals are showing up with many more expected in the coming days. The Western tanager that was discovered in West Tisbury on March 25 stayed until March 28 and has not been seen again. Presumably it has altered its course and is headed west another 2,500 plus miles to return to its species' current breeding range. Tree swallows are arriving, a few pine warblers are singing and May is coming.

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 birds@mvtimes.com.