male orchard oriole
A male orchard oriole perched on a weeping cherry tree planted just last year in West Tisbury. Blossoming fruit trees are like powerful magnets, attracting the earliest orioles to arrive in migration. Photo by Lanny MacDowell

May Days

By E. Vernon Laux - May 3, 2007

This is a month of great change in the natural world. For birders, it is a month that we wish would last longer, as each day and week bring new discoveries on the land and in the waters around us. The wonderment at the discovery for the first time this year of a new bird and accompanying song emanating from an oft-visited spot is a humbling and gratifying experience. It affirms in my mind's eye that there is "magic" in the ordered rhythm of bird migration and life in the real world.

The month of May makes me wax philosophical about many things, but primarily it makes me want to get out in the field, outside to look, listen, and watch what is going on. Wherever one looks, there is lots of activity, the air is filled with song at dawn and dusk, and inhabitants of the bird world are frenetic in their activities that have to do with only one thing at this season - replicating their respective kind. Add to this the thrill of returning breeders and migrants passing through on their way farther north and it is easy to see why May is great for birding.

There has been a flood of bird reports from all over the Island. Most noticeable have been large numbers of rose-breasted grosbeaks at feeders from Aquinnah to Chappaquiddick. At least 26 reports of these dimorphic birds, meaning the males and females are different looking, came in during the past week. The males are unmistakable while the females are much more confusing to many, resembling a heavily streaked sparrow. Check them out in a field guide if you're not familiar with them. A couple of feeders had one of each, a male and a female, including Tim Rich's feeder in Chilmark, and Nancy Hugger and Skip Bettencourt's on Chappaquiddick.

Keeping with a colorful theme, there were another handful of reports of bluish birds in the form of indigo buntings and blue grosbeaks from around the island. There have been at least four blue grosbeaks, 18 indigo buntings, and a female summer tanager visiting feeders. Nancy Furino in Edgartown has had a female summer tanager visiting her feeders for the past 12 days and on April 27 she also had a male blue grosbeak put in an appearance. Those are some fancy yard birds.

Many first reports came in this past week. The first week of May, typically explodes with the first arrival dates for many breeding birds returning for the season. This year the last week of April was impressive with some migrant land birds apparently moving on the strong frontal systems.

Orioles have arrived in small numbers, both the far scarcer orchard oriole as well as a few Baltimore orioles. They invariably appear at early flowering trees and shrubs and have an affinity for early flowering ornamental cherries, crabapples, and quince. These also attract rose-breasted grosbeaks and a slew of other early migrants. The first hummingbirds of the season were reported on April 25, from three different Island locations so it was not a case of an early bird arriving. There was clearly a large-scale movement.

American kestrels and merlins have both been seen in small numbers as these small falcons move northward at this season. Kestrels have been widespread with at least a dozen reported from various grassland and field areas. Unlike many migrating raptors, falcons tend to power themselves in flight not depending on thermals created by the heating of land and ridges, consequently allowing them to migrate along the coast in spring. There is a variable spring flight in late April on the Island each year.

Birds are arriving daily and not only land birds. Both common and roseate terns appeared on April 27, a wee bit early and shorebirds are beginning to pass through on tidal flats as well. The tern numbers will increase for the next couple weeks and some groups will wander around a bit before deciding where to nest. A few short-billed dowitchers, eastern willets, greater yellowlegs and some least sandpipers have put in an appearance at Katama in Edgartown and along the Beach Road. The shorebird numbers and variety will continue to improve all month long.

Lastly, if you are reading this column then you probably have some interest in the outdoors and birds. Take some time over the next month to try to learn the birds singing in your yard and take a few field trips to a woodlot down the street or better yet the Head of the Lagoon which attracts a wide variety of warblers, vireos, thrushes, orioles and lots of others. Binoculars are a must. If you don't have them you really need to figure out how to get a pair because they really will open up a whole new world. You can actually see details, shapes, colors and things that will make it much easier for you to identify the birds you see. Give it a try and you might be surprised to find out how much fun it is!

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