Whimbrels, formerly called Hudsonian curlews - a much more descriptive and fun name - are seen in small numbers on the Vineyard. These attractive large shorebirds can be spotted in the salt marshes along the south shore, especially near dusk, at this season. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Labor Day: no break for birds

By E. Vernon Laux - August 30, 2007

For outdoor enthusiasts and birders, the wait is over! September is here this weekend and with it comes some of the finest birding anywhere in the world. Better still, one does not have to travel to some far-flung corner of the globe - as fun as that might be - because it happens right here on Martha's Vineyard. September and October are without a doubt the best months of the entire year for those interested in watching birds in this part of the world.

It is always good, but some years the birding is absolutely stupendous and this writer is hoping that it is one of those falls. Aside from the idyllic weather that one usually encounters, this season is full of interesting developments. Throw in the odd storm in the form of a hurricane, and September indeed has it all. These frightening storms are fearsome not only to humans but to birdlife as well. Witnessing the "fallout" of birdlife after a severe hurricane can be a once in a lifetime experience.

Has anyone not noticed the early morning light recently, before the sun crosses the horizon, or the remarkable twilights that have been painted across the skies after the sun sets? The days are rapidly growing shorter. This is noticeable to even the most casual observer and the cool nighttime temperatures are ideal for sleeping.

That is unless you are a migrant bird. More than noticeable to wild birds and other animals, the shortening days and cold nights trigger a powerful and necessary drive. The skies, both day and night, are alive with migrating birds. The heavens are a highway and birds of all varieties and sizes are engaged in that most phenomenal of annual events - migration.

It is hard for us terrestrial-based beings to comprehend what it must be like. Try as hard as we might to study, postulate, understand, or theorize about the hows and whys of migration, we certainly don't have all the answers. In fact, the more we know about any particular aspect of bird migration, all the more questions arise. It is simply marvelous!

The birding has been great this past week. Migration has been ongoing, increasing both in volume and magnitude, daily, since the end of July. Terns are really on the move - staging, resting, and preening - along many Island shores. The flats at Katama have been especially productive for these birds and large groups numbering up to 500 individuals have been routinely seen.

Terns and gulls

The terns are not alone on the beaches and flats where they rest. Gulls of many species are appearing in various age classes in good numbers. Gull species undergo a slow transition from their first year plumage through a progression of plumages when the birds molt body feathers in spring and fall, eventually becoming adults in distinctive plumage. Large gulls, like the great black-backed and herring gull, take four years. Ring-billed and laughing gulls take three years and the smallest species like little and Bonaparte's only take two years to achieve the adult plumage for their particular species.

The terns and gulls have lots of other company with various species of shorebirds or waders utilizing suitable feeding and resting areas. Hundreds of black-bellied and semipalmated plovers are most common right now and anything is possible. A few lesser yellowlegs, short-billed dowitchers, and red knots have been seen in various locales around the Island.

Red-breasted nuthatches are making a move, so to speak. These miniature nuthatches are turning up in numbers all over the place. Pelagic trips in search of seabirds have featured a couple of these small birds landing on a boat's rigging over 50 miles at sea. On Cuttyhunk Island over the weekend, there was an individual hanging onto a dead pine branch near the water's edge. They are all over the place on the Vineyard as well.

Birds from common loons to great blue herons to warblers like northern waterthrush, American redstart, and blue-winged warbler are all on the move. As if someone had thrown a switch on September 1, the birds appear everywhere, in all habitats. There are so many more birds along the coastline in the fall for a variety of reasons, including the greatly increased number of birds in the population, prevailing winds, available food in the form of fruits and berries, milder ambient temperatures, and millions of years of evolutionary practice. The coast and particularly the Vineyard are very different during the spring and fall migrations, the difference as great as comparing apples to watermelons.

Rare seabird

Lastly, a sea trip out to the edge of the Continental Shelf departed Hyannis at 4 am on August 25 with 75 keen birders aboard. The boat crossed Nantucket Sound, went through Muskeget Channel and then headed southeast to Hydrographer Canyon. About 65 miles south of Nantucket a small shearwater was spotted, identified, and photographed. It was a Little Shearwater - a new record for state waters. It is only the third occurrence of this species in the western North Atlantic and is generating lots of excitement in the birding world. Check out the web site and click on sightings for pictures and descriptions of this exciting find.

This is a fabulous time to be on the Island. The entire gamut of birdlife is passing by and one needs to know next to nothing about any of it to be able to enjoy the spectacle. Get outside as much as possible and just look, listen, and notice what is going on. It is a beautiful sight!

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