Birds

blue grossbeak
blue grossbeak
The blue grossbeak has two rust-colored bars on its wings. Top photo by Sally Anderson. Bottom photo by E. Vernon Laux

Spring storms

By E. Vernon Laux - April 19, 2007

A Patriot's Day just occurred that won't soon be forgotten, with early-morning nastiness on the scale of a Category 2 hurricane, thankfully only briefly. Forget the "April showers bring May flowers" saying. The hurricane force winds that ripped across the Island on Sunday night and Monday morning were fearsome. Downing trees, cutting power to many and creating havoc along the beaches, this weather also delivered many southern birds to the Island. The morning was young, the wind still howling on April 16, when reports of birds began to come in.

These winds were created by massive, competing and fast moving high and low pressure weather systems that engulfed a vast area. As they converged - "wrestling," if you will - the winds and rain/sleet/snow they generated across the eastern half of the continent were mind-boggling. Transport of all kinds was disrupted and for Islanders there was no way off for a while.

For birds engaged in their springtime, northbound migration, the severe low pressure system sets off all kinds of innate, instinctual alarms (danger, danger Will Robinson!, if you will, passed on by its lineage) and they will attempt to stay ahead of and away from the low pressure center. The air is frought with danger for small birds weighing tens of grams as they migrate thousands of miles, inevitably encountering severe frontal systems and other fierce conditions. Yet, over countless generations, the survivors have learned to deal with nature's fury and pass on this information to the next generation - another seeming miracle in the mystery of birds' lives.

Surprisingly, the storm system did not act the way most meteorologists in the region predicted. As the massive center of low pressure moved, it had an eye just like a hurricane; it moved east and the wind direction never really swung around into the predicted northeast quadrant. The strongest winds were from the southeast, which is the rarest of wind directions and the only direction for the Vineyard which is truly an unimpeded ocean wind. Later, on April 17 the wind turned to the northeast making for cold and raw conditions.

There were many avian surprises delivered to the Island by the storm and as this is being written on the morning of April 17, this writer hopes that we have only scratched the surface in terms of discovering what has been "blown in." The birds that always generate a lot of springtime excitement when they appear at feeders are indigo buntings, which are the size of the American goldfinch. True to their name they are a dark indigo blue, their color varying dramatically depending on the light levels when one is looking at them. They can appear a bluish metallic incandescent in bright sun or conversely almost totally black in poor light with rain as on the morning of April 16.

No less than four buntings were reported from feeders, and it seems certain there are more and most likely Island-wide. Sally Anderson noticed one at her feeder in West Tisbury, a couple of others were seen at feeders in Edgartown and one was reported from Chilmark. If you have one or more that shows up at your feeder, please call it in to the bird line as this is useful and interesting information allowing for a much more complete "snapshot" of what occurs after such a major spring storm.

Indigo buntings were not the only bluish birds arriving on the heels of the big blow. Bob and Daisy Kimberly of West Tisbury had what is believed to be a male blue grosbeak at their feeder. Hopefully, some confirming photos or observers will get to see it, but it sure sounds good. These two species can be hard to separate unless one has comparative experience since both are a vivid blue. The blue grosbeak is larger with a heavier bill, it usually has two distinct rusty wing-bars, and a habit of twitching its tail sideways. It is a rare spring overshoot that, if it is going to occur, appears right on cue after a storm such as just occurred.

The storm system delivered an unprecedented three sooty terns to New England. These most tropical of terns rarely occur this far north. When it does happen, it is invariably in the fall when the birds are driven north by hurricanes. So the reports of a single bird brought to a vet in Connecticut, which died, and a report of two others seen from coastal Rhode Island on the morning of April 16 were nothing short of amazing. This species might be on the Island, so keep a sharp eye out. Sooty terns in April have not happened before. This is indicative of the magnitude and intensity of this storm system.

It seems certain that the vast majority of birds temporarily displaced by this storm have not been seen or identified yet. It is an exciting time. Keep binoculars, a digital camera and a field guide handy and don't be afraid to call for help.

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 vernlaux@comcast.net.