snowy egret
This snowy egret exhibits the beautiful breeding plumes that were once prized for ladies' hats. Back in the early 1900s some Boston ladies who opposed the killing of these birds for their feathers organized the first Audubon society. Their efforts led to the widespread protections that are still enjoyed by birdlife today. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Avian Bonanza

By E. Vernon Laux - May 10, 2007

Life is good at this season. Things are right in the world for both birds and birders in the middle of May. It is an exciting time of year for birders, new and old, as migrant birds pass by and summer resident species return for another breeding season. It is as if the night sky becomes an avian highway, which is, in effect, exactly what is happening.

The vast majority of land birds migrate in darkness. From a terrestrial biped perspective, nocturnal migration represents a mysterious and largely unseen phenomenon that begs the question of how the birds are able to perform such a dangerous and seemingly miraculous journey. The fact that they perform this remarkable feat is indisputable and research into nocturnal bird movements is just beginning to unravel the smallest threads.

It is a large part of the wonder of a May morning, knowing that millions of birds were on the move during the night. This causes a sense of awe, of wonder, creating alertness and sensitivity by the observer to what is going on in the natural world. It is a special season that passes far too quickly.

The birding has been predictably terrific this past week.

The bird line has been ringing off the hook, and thanks for all the calls. May first had 11 callers reporting things like Hollis Smith's male blue grosbeak at an Aquinnah feeder at lunchtime to a black-and-white warbler coming to Nancy Furino's Edgartown bird bath. The majority of calls were about Baltimore orioles. One stands out because it was seen by an Oak Bluffs baseball player, 11-year-old Stow Council Roberts, impressive because he recognized the bird from its logo on his hat. I love when that happens.

Charlie Morano (big) and Charlie Morano (small) report a scarce glossy ibis from the fields at Sweet Water Farm in Edgartown. These funny-looking birds with long decurved bills are an irregular spring visitor to the Island and occur only in spring perhaps one year in five. Skip Mayhew reports a saw-whet owl, tooting away at 10 pm on the night of May 5, also in Edgartown. He fondly calls these tiny owls the back-up birds because their monotonous tooting sounds like a truck backing up. There are birds returning daily and catbirds, towhees, orioles, hummingbirds, great crested flycatchers, etc. are all back in the fold, so to speak.

From people watching their feeders to more active field observers, scouring migrant traps, all have reported lots of birds. Most impressive have been widespread reports of rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings and Baltimore orioles from all over the Island. These colorful and distinctive birds arrived in numbers this past week and have been delighting observers fortunate to have them in their yards.

Some birds - like eastern phoebes, Carolina wrens, and American robins - are about to fledge their first batch of young for the season. So while the spring migration is about to peak, other land birds are way beyond just arriving for the season. If you find nestlings or baby birds the best thing to do is get away from them and leave them alone. The adults know they are there. The small birds' best chance for survival is to be left alone by humans and cats.

The number of migrants passing through has been impressive. Warbler species that nest farther north have been detected as well as species that have returned to the Island to nest. Magnolia, blackburnian, yellow, American redstart, black-throated blue, black-throated green, black and white, prairie, yellow-rumped, pine, ovenbird, and northern waterthrush are all warblers that were seen in many locations this past week.

Typically this week will see the largest movement of spring warblers. So if one could only bird for one week or one day during the spring-this should be the week that is a must to get out in the field. Any favorite spot that one frequents will be a little different this week as birds that are continuing farther north, stopping here only for a brief visit.

With the abundant bird song that characterizes both dawn and dusk at this season, many kinds of birds that are here but are seldom seen are heard with surprising frequency. Bob-white (quail), a species that has been declining on the Vineyard and over all of its extensive species range for decades, can still be heard proclaiming their existence. They are not common but can still be heard calling in many areas, especially in more rural spots along the south side of the Island.

The tidal flats on the Island are alive with shorebirds now. The resident nesting species American oystercatchers, willets, and piping plovers are already sitting on eggs. The vast majority of birds on the flats - black-bellied plovers, dunlin, sanderlings, least sandpipers, and assorted others - nest on tundra far to the north. They are feeding voraciously, in preparation for their final push to the breeding grounds.

They may linger here until late May or early June, then make a rapid flight to breeding areas that are just becoming snow-free. These birds are superb athletes with a synchronous schedule amongst all members of the same species, allowing them to arrive, court, lay eggs and hatch young in the shortest span possible.

The upcoming couple of weeks are way too good to pass up if you have any inclination to take up birding as a pastime, hobby or just a fun and different diversion. So get out and keep track of what you find, as it is sure to be new to you. Binoculars are essential and eye-opening tools in this pursuit, so make sure to take a pair with you. 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