Roseate tern
Roseate terns, the rarest of breeding terns in the North Atlantic, are a threatened species. A few nest each year around the Vineyard, but the largest breeding area in Massachusetts is on Bird Island in Buzzards Bay, from where they "commute" through Woods Hole to fish Vineyard waters. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Rock and roll, spring migration

By E. Vernon Laux - May 17, 2007

The weather has been fabulous, bird migration is happening at a fantastic pace, and isn't life grand in the middle of May? The land is greening, literally sprouting and flowering around us, the waters surrounding the Island are teeming with life and activity and birds are to be found wherever one looks. Migrating common loons are a constant sight overflying even the middle of the Island, sometimes uttering their remarkable and far-carrying calls, as they eagerly and urgently fly north to ancestral breeding ponds. The breeding season waits for no bird and the race to return north increases with each passing day.

Almost all birds that breed on the Island have returned. The only hold-outs that have not made it back are a couple of small non-descript greenish flycatchers in the genus Empidonax called willow and Acadian flycatchers. News of their return to known breeding sites should be imminent. The woodlands and fields are alive with birds and many species like American robins, eastern phoebes, black-capped chickadees, woodpeckers, and others are already feeding ever-hungry hatchlings.

Birds that are back for the season include; gray catbirds and brown thrashers, relatives of the now resident but still migratory northern mockingbird. They arrived back in force last week and are singing on territories. Catbirds, a widespread and abundant breeding bird here, are found in most habitats on the Vineyard, while brown thrashers are restricted to brushy, scrubby habitats and are common only in scrub oak along the south shore, in parts of the State Forest, and in several other spots.

Mockingbirds - the most amazing songsters in this part of the world, are just starting to get really pumped up, often to the dismay of humans within listening range - are starting to sing, all night long. They are amazing, fascinating, seemingly tireless and perform a whole slew of imitations of not only other birds' songs but other noises, including sirens and sounds like beep, beep, beep made by a backing up truck. They synthesize and imitate virtually every bird and sound that is heard in their respective local areas. City mockingbirds imitate car alarms and almost anything else that is a recurring sound. They are like a cover band for the area, creating their own version of the sounds they hear in their part of the world.

The North American wood warblers, highly regarded gems for birders from not only North America but around the world, are highly migratory birds that spend most of their time in the tropics, visiting us briefly for a few warm months to perpetuate their species. These brightly colored mites are at the peak of their annual spring migration right now. They are brilliantly marked in spring and full of song, but much drabber and quiet in the fall, making them seem like completely different birds in spring and fall. Now they are bright, some are gaudy, and the males are singing, making them obvious on the Island where the emergent vegetation is weeks behind that encountered inland.

Scarlet tanagers have been increasing for years on the Vineyard. This is in large part because the deciduous trees they require for food and nesting, in this case various oak trees that have become large enough to support these extremely handsome birds. Pairs of scarlet tanagers now nest from Chappaquiddick to Aquinnah and before the leaves are fully emerged they are very obvious. Great crested flycatchers are making their presence known in wooded areas Island-wide as well. Their pleasing calls are one of the Island's best spring sounds.

Getting a look at one's first of the year black and white warbler, yellow warbler, blue-winged warbler, American redstart, or prairie warbler is life affirming. These tiny birds, weighing less than half an ounce, have flown thousands of miles, arriving at a spot in the woods where on the exact date or within a few days of where this species was a year ago. It may be the same bird or a different bird; regardless, it is amazing and awe-inspiring, the lives they live. Then there are the hummingbirds! To describe them is to talk in superlatives: they are their own subset of birds, the smallest birds in the world.

Lastly, the beaches and tidal flats are full of migrant shorebirds, gulls, nesting least terns, nesting American oystercatchers, and piping plovers. The oystercatchers and plovers may have already hatched young so be careful and be sure to not bring the dog with you at this season. Several parasitic jaegers were seen kleptoparasitizing common and roseate terns as well as Bonaparte's gulls off of East Chop on the afternoon of May 11. These falcon-like seabirds are pelagic pirates that nest on tundra across the Arctic, preying on lemmings and young birds during the summer months, resuming their pirating ways when they head back out to sea after nesting. They are scarce in Vineyard waters during the spring.

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