eastern Willet
One of the largest sandpipers, the eastern Willet frequents salt marshes and beaches and a few pairs are breeding on Chappaquiddick and along Beach Road in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs. When they fly, an unmistakable flashy black-and-white pattern is displayed. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Nesting time

By E. Vernon Laux - June 7, 2007

The changes in the natural world at this season occur more rapidly than at other times of the year. The days continue to lengthen and birds are "making hay while the sun shines," so to speak. Less than two weeks ago the Island played host, as did most of North America, to a moving horde of migrant birds of many species. Mornings in areas where normally there is little to find in the way of bird life would be "magical" with scores of birds feeding and resting in preparation for another night's journey. Then suddenly, like flipping a switch, the spring migration is over and the serious business of propagating the species takes over.

It happens just about that fast - migration ends, baby birds start fledging. Some of the birds that nest farthest north (dunlin, sanderlings, and black-bellied plovers), are still in our area. These migrants are attuned to some as yet unknown factors that their respective species have identified through countless generations that enable them to arrive thousands of miles north of here, when and if conditions are right. Some years the conditions are never right and the birds do not nest.

While the migration is over, it should be said that the vast majority of birds are done moving but that a small percentage of first-year migrants and birds that have not yet fully matured are still moving about. Call it the young adult years when they are still not tied down, freelance prospectors, checking the lay of the land for future reference and possible range expansion of its species known or current range.

This is especially true of species that take several years to mature before they are ready to attempt breeding. Various herons, hawks, including bald eagles, ospreys and Mississippi kites, gulls and terns, and others often wander well north of their respective species ranges at this season. These birds are explorers.

Readers surprised by the idea of a Mississippi kite wandering in this area, should be. This southern species is accidental to New England, but it clearly is in the midst of some serious range expansion and/or change in distribution. The last week of May, a hawk watcher at Pilgrim Heights in Truro on Outer Cape Cod reported observing four individuals. The species has been steadily moving northward over the past several decades and changing its range throughout the southern and Midwestern states.

The waters that surround the Vineyard have quieted in terms of bird life. The fishing is still excellent, but the sooty shearwaters and northern gannets that were visiting both Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds in prolific numbers for the past couple of weeks have basically moved on.

The sooty shearwaters are masterful ocean wanderers that occur in all oceans. The ones seen here breed in vast numbers on islands around the southern tip of South America and come north to winter in our summer (the Austral winter) moving up into the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Saint Lawrence in Canada before crossing the Atlantic and moving south along the European and African coasts on their way home. Obviously, they can't linger too long in our area and keep to this outrageous migration route.

Back on shore the burgeoning numbers of birds increases daily. The cries of young birds, just out of the nest, pleading for more food from adults, is loud and incessant. Many common birds like American robins and Carolina wrens are already busy incubating a second clutch of eggs after having already fledged a brood. Bird populations increase dramatically from now until September.

Unless you are really not paying any attention to what is going on in the natural world, it is hard to miss seeing young birds. They are the scruffy looking things that have a lot of trouble flying. Birds are given the tools to fly - wings, feathers and the instincts to use them - but they must learn to use them and this takes time. If you have cats they should be kept indoors or they will destroy all the young birds in your immediate area.

Inevitably, you will find young birds at one time or another and wonder what should be done. If you have the cat in the house that is a very good starting point, as it will not immediately kill and perhaps eat the young birds. The adult birds know where the young bird is as they locate each other by audio calls. Leave the bird alone, the parents will continue to feed it and within a day or so, it will be much more mobile and move off.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

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