lesser yellowlegs
This breeding plumage adult lesser yellowlegs was photographed on the Fourth of July, resting at high tide. Shorebirds often pull one leg into the feathers of their bodies, cutting heat loss from exposed leg surfaces in half, when resting, saving energy. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Fast and furious

By E. Vernon Laux - July 12, 2007

The frenetic pace of birds during the breeding season is incomprehensible to the human observer. In an absolute blur of energy and timing, birds manage to court, lay eggs, incubate, feed, and fledge young, and then undergo a complete and total molt of all their feathers, all the while eating prodigiously and avoiding predators before eating some more, fattening to migrate once again. Just writing this scenario, this terrestrial-dwelling mammal gets tired!

Birds are incredibly fit animals living life at a pace that exceeds that of all other vertebrate species. They are athletic in the extreme, the most highly mobile organisms on earth, with each marvelous species superbly adapted to its own particular niche. Add to this their beauty and their mastery of flight and it really is not surprising that more and more of our own species are becoming fascinated by these widespread and interesting animals.

Birds are found in all areas of the planet and fairly easy to see. Once one begins looking at the birds in one's own area and learns to identify them, the desire for more seems as natural as eating ice cream on a hot summer day. With the help of binoculars and a field guide the door opens wider and if you're not careful the birding "bug" might get you. The summer on the Vineyard is a good time to start paying attention to these feathered wonders.

Enough waxing about birding: suffice it to say that if you have any inclination to learn more about the animals around you - including birds - try it, you might like it. It can and does provide a lifetime of interest in an endlessly fascinating and ever-changing natural world. The more one learns, the more there is to know. For everything learned, there are many more questions raised, and on and on. The heat has turned this writer towards the philosophical and to examine his own interest in his favorite subject!

Young birds - rookies - are everywhere, not only all over the Island but also over most of North America right now. Birds must learn to use their feathers, wings, and flight muscles. When birds first leave the nest, after outgrowing the confines of the nest, their flight feathers are not sufficiently developed to allow for flight yet. So not only do they not know how to fly, they are still physically incapable of it.

At this critical stage of development, they are extremely vulnerable to predators and all sorts of hazards. Young birds stay near the nest, often hopping around in the branches of trees and shrubs, hence the name "branchers," continuing to be fed by the adults. The feathers continue to grow and within one to several days the birds begin to explore their powers of flight. Crash landings, accidents, all sorts of misadventures occur, as they learn to fly. They have the tools but not the skills.

Birds don't start out as red-hot flying machines. It is more like getting a learner's permit to drive, never having been behind the wheel before, and told to drive cross-country. It is an all-or-nothing proposition - sink or swim! Young birds learning to fly, land, turn, etc., do the craziest things and are very fun to watch!

Away from the woods and fields, things are shaping up nicely on the beaches, sandbars, and tidal flats around the Island. The number and variety of birds grows daily and these places are worth checking every day. Shorebirds, gulls, and terns are on the move and many stop and feed along Vineyard shores. Already done breeding for the year these remarkable birds are constantly on the move, globetrotting from one hemisphere to another as a natural part of their annual cycle.

Several interesting birds have been reported over the past couple of weeks. Most intriguing was the report of a white-winged tern (formerly known as white-winged black tern), a Eurasian species that has only occurred in the state once before during late May in 1954. Dick Jennings, a competent observer who spends summer days working and birding on Chappaquiddick for the Trustees of the Reservations, spotted a black tern with a white rump, the best mark to distinguish this species from black terns, on June 27. He put out the word to Island birders. Unfortunately the bird was never relocated, photographed, or seen by another observer. So it seems that he can count it, but the rest of us have to share in the frustration of not seeing it or a photograph of a truly rare bird in this part of the world.

Lanny McDowell was fishing with friends off Dogfish Bar in Menemsha Bight on July 6 and was thrilled to have two manx shearwaters and two glossy ibis come out of the fog and fly around the boat. Both these species are unexpected near shore in the fog. Great egrets continue to occur in small but regular numbers in marshes all over the Island.

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