Common tern
Common terns are athletic, supremely graceful, and hard-working birds. Adults fly between 200 and 350 miles daily in search of small fish, which they capture by plunge diving headlong into the water. Fishermen pay close attention to "working" terns, which often indicate the presence of game fish. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Arrivals and departures

By E. Vernon Laux - July 5, 2007

With Independence Day falling in the middle of the week it gives many the chance to have a relaxing week. It is a perfect start to the summer season and believe it or not the beginning of the southward migration of birds. While land birds are finishing up the breeding season on the Island or attempting a second (or third) brood the spectacularly fit waders are already taking flight on another leg of their staggering annual migration.

While the Fourth of July is the start of our summer, for many shorebirds, it signals the beginning of the southbound migration. On every cold front from now through September, globetrotting sandpipers and plovers will be riding the air currents. Finished with their breeding activities that are honed through evolution to a remarkably brief period, these birds arrive like clockwork around the Fourth of July, on their journey south.

Most of these early migrating shorebirds will continue south to southern South America, making them amongst the longest distant migrants on the planet. They make a staggering annual roundtrip journey from the extreme northern hemisphere to the far southern hemisphere, keeping them in a perpetual endless summer. This summer is punctuated by regular long nonstop flights that may last for several thousand miles. They are spectacular creatures, superb athletes that routinely go seemingly impossible distances.

These winged wonders, or "wind masters" as author Peter Matthiessen has so eloquently described them, the sandpipers and plovers breed in an amazingly short period before getting back in the air and keeping to their fantastic schedule of globe-trotting. So while we two-legged terrestrial creatures are celebrating the start of summer, many shorebirds have already hatched young more than 1,500 miles north of us and are arriving on our shores to feed, fatten (essentially refuel), grow new feathers, and rest before continuing in many cases all the way to the tip of South America.

Already, southbound migrants have appeared on the wind. These remarkable athletes have begun to arrive on tidal flats and estuary shores. Greater and lesser yellowlegs, tiny semi-palmated and least sandpipers, the badly misnamed short-billed dowitcher with its very long bill, have all put in appearances on the Vineyard. In fact, the birding just keeps getting better from now until the middle of October. It is a good time to be on the Island and an even better time to be looking at or for birds.

There are birds anywhere one goes or happens to be. In the middle of the day when it gets hot and the birding slows, there are dragonflies, butterflies, and myriad and diverse flora on the Island to keep one's interest. In short if you tire of the beach, grab a pair of close-focusing binoculars and go for a walk either there or elsewhere and see what is going on around you.

The tidal flats in many locations are getting busier on a daily basis with more and more bird life. Aside from the local breeders - American oystercatchers and piping plovers - there are increasingly more transients and southbound migrants showing up. The flats are the place to be for birds, and to stay cool as well.

Gulls of several species are also quickly becoming more common as they fledge young and move away from inland areas to enjoy the summer bounty at the beach. After being fed by beachgoers and losing their innate fear of humankind, they learn to terrorize anyone eating food and they know that a paper or plastic bag is the "shell" of something tasty. While not as dangerous as feeding bears, feeding gulls at the beach is not advised. It is bad for gulls and humans alike.

Terns, the most graceful and elegant of all birds (in this writer's opinion) are a week or two from fledging young and moving to Island shores from nearby breeding grounds. These lovely birds offer an identification challenge to even the most experienced birders at this season. The adults, sub-adults, and recently fledged young all look quite different from one another even though they all belong to the same species. Add in several similar species and looking at terns can occupy a lot of beach time. Looking at terns is anything but a hardship.

Failing to mention what is happening in the waters around the Island would be a big mistake. The nearshore waters, with recent prevalent fog and colder than usual water temperatures, have had impressive numbers of Wilson's storm-petrels the past couple of weeks. These tiny seabirds are one of the most abundant birds in the world; they are the most abundant seabird. This species breeds in the Austral summer in a wide variety of Antarctic locations and sub-Antarctic islands. They are spending what is their winter with us during our northern summer.

There have also been small numbers of several southern hemisphere-nesting shearwaters seen in the past week. Greater, sooty, Cory's and manx shearwaters have all been recorded not too far south of the Vineyard by fortunate fishermen who get to not only fish but see pelagic birds as well. Lastly, several royal terns, a large orange-billed, southern species, have been seen resting on sandbars at the new inlet on Norton's Point in Edgartown. These birds are scarce this far north and are huge in comparison to other species seen at this time of year. They stand out from common, roseate, and least terns, resembling big orange-billed gulls, rather than a delicate tern when seen standing on sandbars or tidal flats.

Have a great 4th of July week. 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