Short billed Dowitcher
This red knot is color-banded with flags that enable observers with telescopes to determine where it has come from. This individual, photographed on the south side of the Vineyard in early August, was banded along a lagoon in Argentina, some 4,000 miles south of the Island. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Cold fronts delight birders

By E. Vernon Laux - August 16, 2007

The summer continues to "cook" along and birds of many kinds are heading south. The birds are in the air, both day and night, as they travel hundreds and even thousands of miles in a single leg of their flights south, as they evacuate the northern reaches of the Northern Hemisphere to escape the upcoming severity of fall and winter. This past week, numbers of land birds, migrants from the north woods, began to show up, after nocturnal, migratory flights. They join the considerable numbers of gulls, terns and shorebirds visiting the Island for various lengths as they "stage," feeding almost nonstop before taking off on the next leg of their remarkable migrations.

Arriving this past week were good numbers of northern waterthrushes, small streaky warblers that nest in prolific numbers across the boreal and tundra vastness of North America. While seemingly uncommon in Massachusetts, these hardy, freshwater-loving, ground-foraging warblers, pass by in good numbers. They are remarkably common in Central America during the winter months, their distinctive chip notes emanating from virtually every patch of rain forest, jungle, and mangrove stand.

Other warblers, including fair numbers of yellow warblers and a handful of others species as well as flycatchers, vireos, and orioles are also on the move. In fact, any evening with clear skies from now on will have birds moving in the night. Evenings with light northwest winds will have lots of birds on the move and a check of one's favorite patch of woods, stream, or swamp the next morning should be worthwhile and exciting.

Already this fall several species that are generally scarce have appeared elsewhere in the state. For this early date - the appearance of a curlew sandpiper on the Outer Cape, several lark sparrows along the coast, Sandwich terns and a Sabine's gull in Provincetown - it is clear there are many good birds around. It makes every trip afield even more exciting, ripe with the possibility of discovery.

Head west

For the more adventurous or ambitious birder there is no place like the extreme western tip of the Island, the Gay Head Cliffs at dawn. This beautiful spot, especially early in the morning before the crowds begin to make parking difficult and the arrival of tour buses, is where numbers of nocturnal migrants can be seen as they correct their flight paths and head back to the west and the mainland at dawn. While the birds are often hard to see, little flying shapes that don't want to stop and be seen uttering chip notes, the experience is nonetheless mesmerizing. It is hit or miss in August and early September but by the end of September and early October this spot can be like Disneyland for birders. The sight of lots of birds, engaged in visible migration, is enthralling, striking a primeval chord somewhere in the recesses of our cranium.

Elsewhere at the beaches and tidal flats, shorebird numbers actually declined as the adults have moved south and the immature birds have mostly not yet arrived to replace the departed birds. Shorebirds, sandpipers, and plovers actually have two peaks of migration. Generally, the last week of July and first few days of August have peak numbers of southbound birds. These are all adult birds that have finished their nesting for the year and instinctually know to head south as soon as possible. Then the numbers decrease as these birds leave until near the end of August when all the birds of the year, immature birds of many species and a few lingering adults, crowd Island shores.

Not only do the beaches and flats load up with shorebirds, but also they are accompanied by flocks of gulls and terns, often with some surprise visitors. A trip to the beach, where time of day is not as important as it is in the woods, and it is generally cooler, is a great way to go birding in this hottest of months. To bird the flats is all about understanding the tide and weather. Most tidal areas on the Vineyard are best during mid-tides to see feeding and resting shorebirds.

Foul weather birding

For birding Vineyard beaches and tide flats, bad weather is a good thing. Not in terms of enjoyment or for ease of using optics but for the numbers of birds that occur. Many shorebirds will routinely over fly the Island but strong winds and rain, a northeaster, thunderstorms, or a hurricane will cause them to divert to the nearest landfall to ride out the storm. During and immediately after such weather is the time to get out there and see what has blown in.

Getting out in a boat, especially if one is able to go well south of the Vineyard, is another great way to see birds in August. Seabirds, those that spend their lives on the open ocean, shearwaters, storm-petrels, jaegers, phalaropes, etc. are often abundant in offshore Vineyard waters. A trip offshore is a trip to another world, the marine environment where one might encounter all sorts of things that you will never see ashore. A selection of rather scarce sea turtles, Portuguese man-of-war, perhaps an increasingly rare and beautiful blue shark, an ocean sunfish, dolphins, whales, and a great variety of marine game fishes are all possible.

Given good weather, it is always a worthwhile, exciting and very different trip to journey out of sight of land. If one is able to journey all the way south to the edge of the continental shelf, some 100 miles south of the Vineyard, then one is truly fortunate to be in a place as different from inshore as can be. It's like taking a trip through time and space to a marine world as different from land as can be imagined. Then remember that over two thirds of the planet looks like this!

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