American oystercatcher
Possessing the world's most colorful shucking knife as a beak, the American oystercatcher is a favorite bird for all who see them. Island-nesting oystercatchers are either about to hatch or have just hatched their young. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Big weekend

By E. Vernon Laux - May 24, 2007

The end of May is an idyllic time to be out of doors. The Island offers a tremendous variety and diversity of outdoor experiences. Because of the heating differential between land mass and ocean water the beaches and tidal flats can be as much as 30 degrees cooler than just a scant mile away, inland. The cool ocean waters surrounding the Island create a variety of microclimates that can catch the unprepared off guard and cause serious trouble.

This is especially true of anyone venturing onto the water. The ocean is a stern and steady master. Not so much to be feared as to be carefully observed and respected. A simple trip in a boat anywhere at this season should be respected for its inherent potential for disaster. The water stays cold and should one end up in it at this season, hypothermia is not far away. While the sky is sunny and the air warm, it is still winter in the water.

The fishing is so good right now, almost as good as the birding. Fish are migrating as well as birds and insects. With the constant lengthening in day light and slowly but steadily increasing water temperatures, marine life is on the move. Hungry migrant schools of fish are returning and many are proceeding farther north. They are coming back from points south and from deeper offshore waters where they have been "taking it easy" for the winter. Now they are fattening and preparing for another spawning season and are feeding voraciously.

Inland, in the state forest, for example, the temperature can be 85 degrees and tee-shirts and shorts are just right. While less than three miles away on the south side beaches it can be foggy and downright cold. This requires a heavy sweater or parka and jeans. It is more like traveling hundreds of miles rather than a scant few.

The downtown areas of Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown are looking very nice on the cusp between spring and summer, with luxuriant vegetation and flowers. While along the south (Atlantic Ocean) side the scrub oaks are just beginning to flower, fully a month behind trees a short distance away. The coast is very different from the mainland in the spring.

Gardening is taking front and center for many this coming weekend. Plants seem to grow overnight at this time of year. While working in the garden keep an eye open for butterflies. Many species move north with southwest winds and these newly arrived immigrants are looking for nectar sources - in other words, flowers, in gardens.

This is also the start of the summer season on the Island when it goes from relatively quiet to sheer bedlam, in the course of a Thursday to Friday night. Should the weather be good, people will flock to the beaches just as least terns are laying eggs and piping plovers are either courting, incubating, or have eggs ready to hatch. They are at their most vulnerable right as the first wave of beachgoers hits the sand. Please pay attention to beach areas with nesting bird signs and do not bring the dog to the beach.

If you are on a beach and any bird starts calling or dive-bombing, guess what is going on. You are almost on top of its nest. One need not be a rocket scientist to figure out that this is not a good spot for a picnic or sunbathing. Give the little birds a break and move elsewhere.

The birding is excellent over this long weekend and should one be so inclined grab some binoculars and head to a favorite spot or Land Bank property. The Island has an excellent population of summer resident breeders and they are fairly easy to observe. The tail end of the migration is going on as well and historically almost anything can and has showed up on this weekend.

Arctic nesting shorebirds are staging on Island beaches and mudflats. These normally drab looking species are coming into their quite different and flashy breeding plumages as they are about to make their final push to the breeding grounds. This is the only chance in the year to see these birds when they are colorful and much easier to identify than at other seasons.


The Vineyard was visited on May 15 by a bird that had occurred in the state just once before - a crested caracara. The bird was spotted and identified by Whit Manter of West Tisbury, a careful and experienced observer. There are many species of caracaras, a type of hawk, in Central and South America. The crested caracara has resident populations in central Florida and Texas and gets increasingly common as one moves south.

They are abundant in South America and are one of the few birds that migrate south from the tropics to breed in the Austral summer in southern Argentina and Chile, as does the fork-tailed flycatcher. At any rate, records of this species have been rapidly increasing in the middle of the U.S. far to the north of where the species had ever been seen and it seems likely that more will be reported in the future. This bird was last seen heading east and could still be on the Vineyard or perhaps Nantucket.

Lastly, a yellow-nosed albatross, a species that lives in the South Atlantic Ocean was picked up alive but emaciated in a field in York, Maine, on April 28 and brought to Tufts Veterinary Clinic in Grafton. The bird was hungry, ate like, well, an albatross, and gained over 200 grams. Last Sunday morning, May 20, it was fitted with a satellite transmitter and released from Old Silver Beach in Buzzard's Bay. After sitting in the water getting its bearings for half an hour, it got airborne. It was seen a couple of hours later flying along the power lines a few miles west of the Bourne Bridge when it was observed turning back towards the bridge and the canal. This bird could certainly end up anywhere and it will be interesting to learn of its progress.

Have a great Memorial Day weekend. 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