Roseate tern
This immature eagle has been visiting Menemsha Pond, much to everyone's delight. Photo by Nick Bologna

Migration quiets

By E. Vernon Laux - May 31, 2007

The month of May passes so quickly that it seems like a dream for ardent birders. With all the changes occurring with breeding birds and migrants, the passage of time seems to accelerate. The land, skies, and waters literally explode with bird life. Swarms of northbound migrants, as well as the Island's dense population of breeding birds, all return at the same time in a kaleidoscope of color and cacophony of sound. It is a month that excites the senses and delights the recesses of the mind.

Every day in May is different, some exceedingly so, from the one proceeding. For example, look at a morning on East Chop, where the day before there were lots of migrant warblers, vireos, orioles, and other land birds; the following day there are even more and different birds. A nocturnal horde had arrived, mysteriously appearing during the night, unfathomable to us terrestrial creatures, and they are hungry. This happens on many mornings in May.

The trees, bushes, and lawns are alive with the movement of ravenous small birds that have interrupted their northbound travels to spend a day on-Island before continuing further. The preposterous arrival on Martha's Vineyard of these mini-life forms, a marvel of mobility, for only one day in May, adds to the mystery and allure of their winged forms. The waifs fly across continents, annually in spring and fall, in darkness, a miracle of nature.

The Memorial Day weekend, as usual, was terrific for birds and birders. While no outrageous rarities appeared on the Vineyard, there were lots of migrant birds. The weekend brought a major movement of cuckoos, warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and the like to most of the Island. Dozens of blackpoll warblers, both male and female, were heard and seen over the weekend. They were far from alone as blackburnian, bay-breasted, black-throated green, and a Cape May warbler were also recorded in a small area on East Chop.

The appearance of the female blackpolls indicates that the end of the land bird migration is near. These northernmost nesting warblers are the last to pass through in spring with females bringing up the rear. Along with other warblers, they nest in the spruce belt that crosses the top of the continent in Canada. The blackpoll warbler undertakes an annual migration that defies explanation for such a small, seemingly fragile bird, crossing vast distances and much open ocean in the course of its annual travels.

The new inlet making Chappaquiddick in Edgartown truly an island again has been a bonanza for birding and fishing. The habitat created by this opening is ideal for a wide variety of gulls, terns, shorebirds and passing rarities. It is far and away the best spot on the Vineyard to find any bird associated with beach or ocean habitats and is worth checking as often as possible. Pelagic birds will fly in and check it out and then return to sea. Already there has been a royal tern and black skimmer frequenting the area, resting with groups of common and roseate terns.

The waters surrounding the Island have been full of life and an influx of sooty shearwaters has found its way inshore, with dozens being reported from Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds over the weekend. They are not alone, as terns, gulls, cormorants, and hundreds of northern gannets have been enjoying the bonanza of food present as well.

Immature eagle puts on show

Lastly, an immature bald eagle has been dazzling fishermen, kayakers, and birders up in Menemsha Pond. These stocky birds are impressive at any range but to see one up close and personal in the wild - on the Vineyard is unexpected. Nick Bologna and Melissa Thomas spotted the bird May 24 hanging around the Menemsha Channel and on Edys Island, not far from the Police Station, the old Coast Guard building.

The next day Jim Feiner of Chilmark was fishing in his kayak and managed to get some excellent photos of this bird-eating fish. On the afternoon of May 26, Nick Bologna managed to get some incredible shots of the bird, one of which appears above.

Though the bird seems to have no trouble procuring fish, it has been hard to determine the exact species it feasts on. With a known fondness for carrion and fish frames, it seems likely this immature bird has not caught all of them. The crows, terns, and even gulls are less than thrilled to have this "beast" of a bird in the area and have been mobbing it whenever it gets airborne. It will be interesting to see how long this individual remains in this area that, for now, is clearly to its liking.

As the spring migration winds to a close, there are often some very interesting vagrants that stray into our area. So don't put down those binoculars yet for the season. The next 10 days are generally very interesting, as is the breeding season.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky.

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