A group of sanderlings taking a break from their usual activity, running up and down with the waves along outer beaches. With the most extensive winter range of any bird in the world, these sandpipers winter in very small numbers from the Canadian Maritimes to the southern tip of South America.

Fleeting summer

By E. Vernon Laux - July 26, 2007

Common sense and years of experience tell us that the seasons progress at the same rate annually. Yet it seems that summer progresses faster at these latitudes than any other season. Today, 26 July, it feels as if no season is as brief as a fleeting temperate northern summer. To the disbelieving eye the calendar shows that it is already the last week of July.

Summer, more than the other seasons, seems to pass at the speed of light. The further north one goes, the shorter the summer. Just a couple of weeks ago the birding was all about nests and baby birds. Today, it is about which way the wind is blowing to determine what migrants may blow in on the next frontal system.

In the blink of an eye, it seems, the patterns in the natural world have changed, flowing as always to the next phase of natural activity, driven by the pattern of the earth's movement around the sun. For those interested in birds, this is an exciting time of the year that just keeps on getting better for the next couple of months. The fall migration has begun in earnest and new birds arrive on the Island daily.

Rock and roll beaches

Most exciting and worthwhile at this season is the activity on the beaches, shorelines, and tidal flats. The peak of the shorebird migration is underway. The adults of many Arctic-nesting species are southbound. Many arrive to stay a week or more as they put on weight, storing much needed energy for the next leg of their marvelous annual journey. Virtually any tidal area on the Island has birds using it that were not present a week ago, or often even the day before.

A walk down Norton Point in Edgartown, the barrier beach along the south shore that used to connect Chappaquiddick to Katama in Edgartown, is especially good at this time of year. The flats are good at any tide. Perhaps mid-tide offers the best mix of habitats and the birds are not as spread out as they are when it is lower. More birds are scattered about feeding when the tide is low. At high tide, they are concentrated but sleeping with heads folded in.

There is a very good mix of plovers and sandpipers on the beaches right now. They are not alone, as both terns and gulls are arriving on Island shores, having fledged young on nearby islands. They are here to feed and rest in preparation for the upcoming migration.

Currently, the Vineyard is experiencing a bonanza of terns. This past week a single immature black skimmer, the only birds in the world with elongated lower mandibles, was seen on Sarson's Island in Sengekontacket Pond. A single royal tern, a large southern-ranging species, appeared briefly at Menemsha but did not linger.

The roseate tern, an endangered species, is one of the rarer species of tern in the world. They nest in a few major groups and many smaller groups in coastal New England. The largest colony in the world is off the tip of the north fork of Long Island on Great Gull Island (some 2,000 pairs) and the next largest colony is on a small island in Buzzard's Bay called Bird Island (with over 1,000 pairs). After the young can fly, birds from these colonies move closer to abundant food supplies. A significant percentage of the roseate tern population in the western North Atlantic is visiting Island shores and surrounding waters.

Upland sandpipers, fabulous birds that breed in grasslands across central and northern North America and winter in South America are due to arrive, in fact are probably here, in the fields at Katama in Edgartown. While these birds become regular visitors to the fields in early August, they are much more difficult to find in July. Secretive and camouflaged in the grass, the best way to locate them is by their distinctive call notes, which carry a great distance. Often the birds can be heard further away than they can be seen.

Elsewhere in Edgartown this past week, there were fantastic close-up views of roseate, common, and least terns, both adults and recently fledged young. On the 23rd many species of shorebirds were also encountered on Norton Point, including 8 piping and 60 semi-palmated plovers, 50 ruddy turnstones, 16 willets, 20 greater yellowlegs, 85 short-billed dowitchers, 16 American oystercatchers, 300 sanderlings, and 25 least sandpipers.

The west end of the Island, specifically the north shore of Aquinnah, has been very birdy of late. Several glossy ibis, including a couple of immature birds, have been frequenting some small freshwater wetlands along with black-crowned night herons and green herons. The beach has also been hosting good numbers of piping plovers, both adults and young, as well as sanderlings and lesser numbers of semi-palmated and least sandpipers. Southbound adult shorebirds are on the move and may be encountered not only on beaches and tidal flats but flying and calling overhead as they pass by.

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