Gay Head
First light capturing the rising light in the east at Gay Head. This is a favorite spot for Island birders. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Christmas at Easter

By E. Vernon Laux - April 12, 2007

The week that just occurred was really not what one expects in April. It was colder, windier than this past Christmas, with far higher wind chills. Spring - bah humbug! To say that it put a damper on a birder's enthusiasm to get out and find things would be to understate the significance of how cold it really was.

To arise on Easter morning and see the bird bath frozen solid, the heater removed a week ago, the wind chill in the single digits or teens with a strong northwest wind whistling under the door made one feel for Easter egg hunters. This weather was just not right; when is it ever going to warm up? The jet stream had warped and the entire eastern half of the country was getting chilled.

The impact this had on early migrating land birds had to be severe. The earliest to arrive were forced to deal with conditions that should have been long gone by their arrival date. This will also delay the timing of the breeding season, postponing it by a couple of weeks in many areas while the snow melts.

But life goes on and wildlife and birds are nothing if not adaptable. They deal with whatever weather occurs and keep on going. The soon-to-be-warm weather will only slow down the breeding season temporarily. The life force is strong in living things and they manage to find a way to persevere.

The year's best birding?

Late April and May, arguably, represent the best time of year to learn about birds. The weather is delightful (can't wait), birds are in breeding plumage and singing constantly and one's senses come alive after a winter's chill. There is no better time to start, to slowly begin, to jump in with both feet, to renew or refresh, or re-energize one's relationship (or lack thereof) with birds and the outdoors - the natural world around you.

If you are reading this, chances are you relate to the above philosophical waxing, or you're at least curious. If you never have gone out and admired or tried to identify the birds around you, my advice is try it, you might be surprised to find that you like it. It is fun, interesting, and as challenging as you care to make it. For some it is a pleasant diversion, an excuse to get out and enjoy lovely places, for others it is an avid hobby or even a sport. There are no age barriers and the playing field is level.

Occasionally in spring, southern breeding species of several kinds of warblers, tanagers, and buntings will overshoot southern breeding areas and show up in late March or April. As they nest farther south they migrate north earlier in spring to return to breeding areas that become habitable for the species earlier than more northerly areas. This missing the mark or overshooting too far north happens about every other year on the Vineyard, but there is no regular or predictable flight. One overshooting bird, a summer tanager reported from a West Tisbury feeder last week, did not linger.

The greater the distance a bird migrates, the tighter its migratory window. Species that take advantage of the far north's briefly abundant food resources have honed their migratory patterns accordingly. Obviously insect-eating flycatchers and warblers that arrive in the spruce forest in April when there is still snow on the ground, cold temperatures, and no insect food would have made a grave mistake and be removed from the gene pool. These birds are constantly evolving and adjusting their migratory patterns. Boreal forest and Arctic nesting species remain south later than any other migrants and are the last to pass through in spring migration.

Coming in for a landing

Soon land birds will be arriving in droves. Eastern towhees, chipping sparrows, gray catbirds, tree, barn, bank, and rough-winged swallows, and pine warblers are just a few birds that will soon show up in considerable numbers. The bird song at dawn and dusk is getting more impressive daily. There is so much to learn for anyone with even a casual interest. Do you know the song and call of the American robin? Go out in your yard and follow one early or late in the day, and listen to it sing.

The most common migrant Island-wide this past week has surely been the white-throated sparrow. These birds were everywhere and their clear whistled song, which is often denoted in words, paraphrased, or changed from bird song to human language as "old-Sam-Pea-body" were singing virtually from every thicket and woodland on the Island.

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