semipalmated sandpipers
This surreal photo has two birds; sleeping semipalmated sandpipers on the upper left side with their reflections on a not quite glassy water surface, as well as two out-of-focus birds on the bottom middle and another reflection of a bird, not in the picture, on the upper right. By far the most common shorebird migrant on Island shores, they nest in the Arctic and winter in the tropics. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Birding behavior

By E. Vernon Laux - August 2, 2007

The arrival of August ushers in more interesting birding than what we were experiencing during the middle and end of July. The breeding season has scaled way back and only a few prolific multi-brooded species are still making more birds. Most birds have finished with their nesting chores for the year and many are already on the move.

An interesting phenomenon called post-breeding dispersal happens at this time of year. This involves many southern species of herons and terns that disperse northward after the breeding season, causing a bit of excitement for birders. There is typically a small influx of these birds in the month of August.

The likely species involved include but are not limited to the little blue heron, Louisiana heron, glossy ibis, cattle egret, as well as myriad tern species like sandwich, royal, gull-billed and in waters offshore, sooty and bridled tern. Last week, three bridled terns were seen well south of the Island on a pelagic birding trip and one was visiting a tern colony in Maine, most unusual for this tropical warm-water species.

In fields and woodlands, especially along the woodland edges, flocks of mixed species - warblers, vireos, flycatchers, orioles, and sparrows - are beginning to appear. Northern waterthrush and yellow warbler, two very widespread species that breed across the top of North America have begun to migrate and both appear on Island after clear, cool nights.

August visitors

When the first of August arrives the birding really starts improving. In fact, birds are beginning to show up all over the place and the birding just keeps getting better from now through October. Most productive are the mudflats and sandbars that can be found at estuaries around the Island. Southbound shorebird numbers are peaking now with adults, there numbers will begin to decrease before immature, first-time migrant shorebirds start to appear mid-month.

Terns have finished nesting and departed nearby breeding colonies for Vineyard shores. Large flocks of common and roseate terns, occasionally accompanied by other species, can be seen at Sarson's Island in Sengekontacket Pond, at Eel Pond in Edgartown, anywhere on the beaches of Chappaquiddick, along the outer beaches by the Great Ponds and at various points around Menemsha Pond.

The terns get into a variety of plumages at this season and it is a great time to learn them. The juveniles look very different from the adults and the variation in bill and leg colors amongst a group of adults can be remarkable. All the salient field marks are variable. Studying terns as they molt from breeding to winter plumage is as educational a challenge as there is in birding. They are such beautiful and graceful birds that it is no hardship to look at them very closely, noting the differences between individuals at this time of year.

Fishing for birds

This is a perfect time of year to do just about anything outside. As so many of us spend lots of time out in the natural world, disproportionately more birds are seen than in other months. With fishing being an activity that lends itself to looking for birds at the same time, any offshore fishing trip can be just as exciting for the birds one might encounter as for the marine life and actual game fish that may or may not be caught.

Many fishermen have been venturing to the waters south of the Island and report good numbers of sea birds. On recent trips, reports of hundreds of Wilson's storm-petrels have been impressive. These small black oceanic birds with white rumps are like ballerinas dancing on the surface of the water as they gather food. Many bird experts think that this species may be the most abundant in the world, and they are found in every ocean.

Wilson's storm-petrels have also been reported fairly close to shore. Many days they are seen fluttering around right in Vineyard Sound and right off the beaches on the south side. Over in Chatham they have been frequenting the inlet and adjacent waters off of Morris Island and the Monomoy Islands in small numbers.

A dedicated pelagic birding trip to the "canyons" south of Nantucket last weekend noted good numbers of the usual suspects and a number of rarities, including the afore mentioned bridled terns, three Audubon's shearwaters, and a long-tailed jaeger. They also found Cory's, greater, and sooty shearwaters. All three of the aforementioned birds nest in the southern hemisphere and are spending the Austral winter here in the northern hemisphere summer. They breed on remote offshore islands in the southern summer, our winter season.

Bird migration will go from a little to a lot by the end of the month. Gull numbers are beginning to build on beaches and their antics at removing food from unattended bags by beachgoers is not really very funny to watch. They learn quickly and continue to improve their bad habits.

If you think you might like to try your hand at birding, there is no time like the present to start. Get a hold of a pair of binoculars and start using them. Better yet, find someone who knows the birds and go out with them: you will learn even faster this way.

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