When it rains it pours

Norton Point Beach
Raging ocean currents caused the breach in Norton Point Beach, much to the delight of Island birders. Gulls, terns, and other shore birds are attracted to the ocean inlet. Photo courtesy of TTOR

By E. Vernon Laux - April 26, 2007

Spring, on the Island is far different than what occurs over almost the entire rest of the continent. It stays cold around here whenever the wind comes from the water due to the chilling effect of the North Atlantic. Should the wind come from the east, temperatures can plummet, making a June day feel like mid-winter. The warming rays of the sun take much longer to raise water temperatures than to heat solid ground. Birds know about the rigors and the dangers of the coast in the spring and land birds try to avoid it, especially early in the migration season.

That said, the coast is also where birds that have taken the wrong route, vagrants, wandering, flying sentinels from afar, invariably end up. The physical barrier presented by the ocean, land's end, is a formidable and real barrier to birds that depend on things like fresh water, insects, seeds and places to perch, rest and sleep. This makes the immediate coastline, especially places like the Gay Head Cliffs, Squibnocket, Wasque and Cape Pogue so good to bird. The possibility of some off-the-wall vagrant has much better odds of hitting than anywhere else. The ornithological record will attest to the bounty of rarities that have occurred at these locales.

Avoiding the coastline and surrounding waters is not true for the many seabirds that are perfectly at home among the ocean swells, the sea providing for all of their needs. Most pelagic species avoid the immediate coast because of its proximity to land and the inherent dangers associated with that. They are superbly adapted for life there with specialized desalinating glands to drink saltwater, superb wing design for wave skimming flight and remarkable feathers that provide waterproofing and insulation from sun, cold, and corrosive saltwater. These species' only need for land is as a place to lay an egg and raise a chick or chicks. Most seabirds only lay one egg and both adult birds take part in obtaining food for the chick.

The weather finally took a turn for the better and the birding has been fabulous. Land birds that appeared after the massive storm system that hit last week have been impressive. However, little is as impressive as the breach on Norton Point in Edgartown, actually making it what the name implies for the first time in a very long while. This roaring inlet will make this area, already far and away the best shore bird location on the Island, much better still. This will be the spot to find many species that formerly would over fly or just pass by the Island.

The new inlet, so close to the large fields at Katama, many newly plowed, also acts as a magnet for gulls as well as shore birds. This area is now as good as it gets for these birds anywhere in New England. The possibilities are energizing and if you are so inclined to get out and look for birds, this is always a good bet. It is best in foul weather, but can be good at any time.

Back to the birds that started arriving on Patriot's Day and seemed to build throughout the following week. As there were so many reports - thanks to all for the calls and information - I am only going to talk birds, not observers; please don't feel slighted. The rarest land bird was a male painted bunting that appeared at a feeder just south of the Vineyard Airport. Take a look in a field guide at one of these unimaginably colored birds, which are always rare here and occur very infrequently after storms such as we just had.

A male blue grosbeak visited another feeder just to the northwest of the airport. At least 15 indigo buntings were reported from the Island - from the east on Chappaquiddick (3) to the west in Aquinnah (1) - showing at feeders and on lawns all over the Island. Scarlet tanagers, a vivid brilliant bird in this season - all birds reported were males - were reported from four spots on the Island. Before the leaves emerge, the sight of one of these almost shiny red birds with startling contrasting black, satiny wings is unforgettable.

Then after the storm finally subsided after many days, the weather changed to idyllic with southwest winds and the birding just kept getting better. A white-eyed vireo was found at the Head of the Lagoon and a blue-headed vireo in West Tisbury, both by Sally Anderson. A couple of reports of both Baltimore and orchard orioles have filtered in, and no doubt more will be forthcoming. A ruby-throated hummingbird has already made its way to Maine so this would be a good time to get those feeders out.

Bird song has morphed into lovely full spring mode. Birds are all on the move, and the breeding season is already under way for some. Simon Hickman of West Tisbury, phoebe-man if you will, reports that a pair has built a nest right on top of last year's nest under a porch ceiling, and a quick check on April 21 showed five eggs in the nest that the female is incubating. Spring has sprung, indeed. An immature bald eagle has been seen repeatedly near the Squibnocket parking lot for the past week.

Lastly, a tropical tern thought to be a sooty tern, was picked up freshly dead on a Chilmark beach last week. The bird will be delivered to the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and made part of its collection. These terns are very hard to separate from another tropical species called the bridled tern, so a definitive examination is eagerly awaited. Either of these species occurring in April is unprecedented.

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