yellow-billed cuckoo
Cuckoos, both yellow-billed like this one and black-billed, are increasing in numbers and popularity on the Island because they love to eat caterpillars, even the big hairy ones that other birds avoid. A secretive species, they are frequently heard, but only occasionally seen. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Longest days

By E. Vernon Laux - June 21, 2007

Summer has arrived on this, the longest day of the year, in the northern hemisphere. Of course, every day is the same length and comprised of 24 hours so to be more accurate it is the day with the most hours, minutes, and seconds of daylight north of the equator. In fact, if we were standing farther north, say at the imaginary line we call the Arctic Circle, located at 66 degrees 33 minutes North Latitude, the sun would move around the horizon, low in the sky, completely different from anything most humans are familiar with.

We, as a species, evolved in basically tropical and temperate region, and only a scant few have learned to live in the harsh Arctic environment. There is no sunrise and sunset in the Arctic at this season. The sun is just there, low in the sky, moving around the horizon. The expression, "land of the midnight sun" is used because it is daylight, 24/7 in mid-June at the higher latitudes. Summer in the far north is an Arctic dream.

Conversely, today if we were unfortunately visiting the Antarctic, it is the beginning of winter in the southern hemisphere. If we were at the imaginary line called the Antarctic Circle, located at 66 degrees 33 minutes South Latitude, one would be standing on ice over a mile thick in frighteningly cold conditions in total darkness, absent the Austral Borealis or astronomical light. Sunrise would not come for several months.

The above digression is an attempt to put a bit of perspective on the calendar, an overview of the bigger picture. Changes in latitude, changes in attitude, as Jimmy Buffet has written, also apply to the natural world. Birds are the ultimate migratory species on this planet. Especially the shorebirds, and as they fly from continent to continent, north to south and back, annually, their biorhythms, their attitudes, change dramatically with latitude.

Like all migratory birds, they have adapted a pattern of movement that enables them to utilize vast areas of the planet that are only suitable for their species for a couple of months or longer. The longer distance a particular species migrates, the more highly developed its synchronicity is. The birds gather in migratory flocks and travel, feed, rest, in fact do everything together. This ensures that when they make their final flight north to the vast tundra regions, they will be able to find their own kind and quickly begin courting, laying eggs and hatching young. Their biological clocks run at an incredibly precise pace compared to those of humans which are of an entirely different caliber.

This is the breeding season and birds all over the Island are busy making more birds. Familiar Carolina wrens, Eastern bluebirds, and American robins have already fledged one batch of young and are close to bringing off a second brood. Most other birds found here are now busy feeding their young.

Baby birds eat voraciously and are insatiable. Periods of cold and damp weather that occasionally happen can be very damaging at this time. Adults are scouring their territories for food in the form of protein-rich insects to feed the young. Cold and wet restricts insect activity and food becomes scarce at a critical time. The longer the weather stays cold and wet the more potential for disaster for adults attempting to feed rapidly growing young. Hopefully the northeast winds that persisted last week will be the last of the cold wind and rain for some time to come. Weather like that in June is detrimental to nesting productivity and stresses bird populations even further.

Bobwhite, or quail, are noisy and noticeable during the breeding season. A species that has been steadily decreasing on the Island for decades, there is still a small and widespread population. Most of the year, bob-whites are secretive and shy, rarely being seen. But in May and June couples pair off and males call vigorously and act like little showy peacocks. In the last several weeks, over a dozen calls to the bird line have come in from excited observers who have been watching bobwhites, either a pair or a displaying male. The observers invariably claim to have not seen a quail in many years.

This is good news. Whether they are in fact increasing, having a good year, or whether there are more interested observers paying attention and noticing them are all good questions.

This is the season to locate them and there are quite a few up-Island. However, it is apparent to all that over the past couple of decades the species has experienced a widespread decline locally and is now present in numbers that are a mere fraction of what were formerly found. Some observers attribute the decline of quail to the increase in skunks and raccoons which steal eggs from quail nests, as well as those of whippoorwills, both of which nest on the ground.

Both yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos have been seen and heard calling in several areas, Island-wide. These interesting birds are the only ones around that have a fondness for eating hairy caterpillars. The cuckoos tend to be more common along woodland edges and love to eat the caterpillars found on many a wild black cherry. Sluggish and secretive when in foliage, they often are not seen until they fly past at considerable speed, a blur across one's vision across a road or path.

Seemingly inevitably at this season you will encounter baby birds. Just leave them alone. The parents know where they are and will come and feed them. Just out of the nest, they develop rapidly and in a couple of days will be fully capable of flight. They do need protection from your cat, however, so keep the felines inside at this season of extreme vulnerability for birds.

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