Hudsonian godwits and sanderlings
Hudsonian godwits and sanderlings have been seen on the Vineyard in the past 10 days. The godwits, like the big bird in the photo, rarely stay on the Island for more than a few days. Sanderlings are the birds that run up and down with the waves on south shore beaches. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Southbound migrants

By E. Vernon Laux - August 9, 2007

The summer seems to be disappearing far too rapidly, in the blink of an eye, as it always does. No disputing this good news/bad news scenario, but the news is all good for birders. The birding from here on out for the next ten weeks is absolutely as good as it gets.

Changes in the ambient temperature and weather, accompanied by the now noticeable and quickly decreasing length of day, the photoperiod, are the catalysts for bird migration. Every day at this season, regardless of weather conditions, there will be some migration - some birds will move. However, with the passage of any kind of frontal system or weather pattern, many more birds will move than when the weather is settled. It is important to get out in the field as often as one can in upcoming weeks because really no two days are alike.

Movin' in

Land birds are on the move as are just about all other kinds of birds that migrate. The weather has started to change dramatically and for birders in the northeast and especially on the coast this is the time of year that we wait for the rest of the year. The months of August, September and October offer some of the finest birding anywhere in the world, right here.

In fact, late August and the first half of September are the best and only time to see many species on the Cape and Islands. The upcoming weeks provide the best opportunity to see many scarce and rare shorebirds. In fact, several Hudsonian godwits, large sandpipers with upturned bills and one of the rarest species on the globe have been seen in the past ten days. Lanny McDowell found a lone individual on a Chilmark Community Center walk to Quansoo last week and he found two more resting at high tide on Norton's Point in Edgartown. Of the four species of godwits in the world this species has the most limited range and the smallest population, by a lot. These strong flying birds breed in the far north and winter at the southern tip of South America.

Other scarce long distance migrants include Baird's and buff-breasted sandpipers. Arctic nesting species that winter in the mountains of South America are rare but regular during a small "window" at the end of this month. During the spring migration, these birds move north through the middle of the continent, as do most adults in the fall. But with predominant northwest winds in the fall, small numbers of immature birds, making their first southbound migration, may appear for a brief time on favored shores.

Although the aforementioned species may appear, they are by no means a sure thing. They often are not seen or detected at all and may go unrecorded for several years in our area. Historically, the best time to encounter these globetrotters is on or around Labor Day Weekend.

While the days have been growing noticeably shorter, sunset and sunrise, respectively later and earlier, birds on the move have been hard to ignore. The fall migration is rapidly intensifying. On the beaches, immature shorebirds have begun to arrive and mingle with southbound adults. A lone black skimmer was seen by Whit Griswold on August 4 as it flew by at sunset on the south side of Chilmark.

Terns around

Tern numbers are impressive at many favored spots. This is a great opportunity to study the wide variety of plumages that these birds exhibit. A couple of hours spent looking carefully at a flock of terns is fun and educational.

Adult terns can be seen in all plumages, from breeding adult to winter adult. The adult soft parts, bill, and leg color changes from bright reddish orange to black. The black cap molts from solid black to white forehead and black only on the top and back of the head, with the presence of a black carpal bar (shoulder mark). Then there are the immature birds molting from fresh juvenile plumage to first winter. It is a great time to note the differences between common and roseate terns.

Terns are fascinating and are only here for only a short while longer. While watching a flock of terns, attempting to sort out the various plumages, pay close attention to their behavior and what they are doing. As you are watching you will see an adult approaching a mixed flock with a fish in its beak. This adult will only feed its own chick that it locates by sound. The bird will fly over the entire flock calling and all the young birds will call back hoping for a meal. It may make several passes and generally it creates a bit of mayhem among the ever-hungry youngsters. If you have not figured out the difference between the immature and adult birds yet, the one flying in with a fish is the adult.

Birdbaths-slow drip

Not only are the beaches and tide flats loaded with birds now but on certain days so are most woodlands and thickets. Those of you who feed birds or do a lot of gardening might want to consider providing water in the form of a birdbath. Birds are really attracted to water for drinking and bathing even more at this season than at other times. If you make the water move by creating a little drip action it makes it easier for birds to find. A little electric bubbler, a tilted watering can or any other way to make a little movement to the water makes it exponentially easier for thirsty migrant land birds to find.

With land bird migration about to hit full speed ahead, providing moving water will alert "day-tripper" birds to its presence. It can be very exciting and surprising to note all the different kinds of warblers, vireos, and other visiting birds that will drop in for a quick drink and a bath. Who knew that all these different kinds of birds actually pass through your own yard? It is neat to see unfamiliar birds in such a familiar environment - noting that birds that come in late in the afternoon provide insights into the fall migration.

Lastly, with the summer winding down, it is time to think about harvesting things in the garden and looking at the yard. If you can leave the garden "messy" and let grasses along the edge go to seed, it will make your yard much more productive for migrant birds. A tidy yard is usually a sterile yard, so don't worry about cleaning up too much until early November. The migrant birds, especially the sparrows of October will thank you by visiting and benefiting from the bounty you leave them.

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