marbled godwit
A lone marbled godwit - a large, elegant shorebird - graced the shores of Cape Poge Bay late last week. Here, it is preening, maintaining its feathers by careful grooming and oiling. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

September reigns

By E. Vernon Laux - September 6, 2007

The eagerly awaited and much anticipated month of September has finally arrived. For the birder on Martha's Vineyard, it does not get any sweeter than this. It is the absolute best time of the year and the possibilities are truly endless on a September morning. Not only is it tremendous for birds, it is the pinnacle of migration for dragonflies, butterflies, and bats. The airspace over and around the Vineyard is very busy just now and not just with manmade aircraft. Couple this migration action with typically great weather and one can begin to understand just how good the fall season is on the Island.

The month of September is exceptional for many reasons. The weather, the fishing, the good eating provided by garden-fresh vegetables, the unhurried downtowns with parking, un-crowded beaches, and beautiful sunrises and sunsets come to mind. For birders on nights with light northwest winds, the bird migration can be spectacular. When conditions are just right, literally millions of birds can be in the air over the Cape and Islands. The birding is nothing short of fantastic.

This past week and weekend, a high-pressure weather system provided the Vineyard with pleasant sunshine and cool temperatures. Unfortunately, as far as bird migration goes on the Island, as shore fishermen know, east is least, as far as wind direction and bird migration go. Many birders were disappointed that there were not more birds moving.

The reality is that many birds were moving, only the strong east and northeast winds allowed these primarily insect-eating species (insectivores) to remain inland, away from coastal areas. Migrating by inland routes is far less dangerous for birds. There are far fewer bird-eating falcons, there are lots of places to land, eat and drink, and there are no hungry jaegers and gulls ready to catch and eat exhausted migrant land birds caught out over the unrelenting Atlantic Ocean. So while the birding may have been a little disappointing over the weekend, it was good for the birds.

For many, the beginning of another M.V. Bluefish and Bass derby allows both residents and visitors an opportunity to be outside at this remarkable time of year. While many fishermen claim to be just fishing, all are soaking in the season and the passing butterflies and birds are duly noted, if not identified. Many interesting, curious and fun things will be seen by derby participants during upcoming weeks that have nothing to do with catching fish.

The numbers of birds engaged in migration in September (fall) is much larger than it is in May (spring). The reason for this is simple: the breeding season has just ended and there are big numbers of young birds in the population. The rigors, pitfalls, and dangers of migration, general "rookie" mistakes and over-wintering take a toll on these young birds and each species population will be significantly lower come springtime.

Bird migration is constantly developing and evolving. Currently, along the northeast coast of the U.S., migrant birds utilize two completely different and predictable strategies for the spring and fall migration. Simply put, they stay away from the coast and offshore islands in the spring and conversely they want to be on the coast and offshore islands in the fall. The moderating effects of the warm ocean waters allowing for more insect activity and abundant fruit along the coastline are the big attractions in the fall.

Cliff hanging

September's arrival signals the time for birders to start checking the extreme western tip of the Island for migration: the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah. Most species of land birds are nocturnal migrants, and as dawn breaks, they reorient themselves and many will attempt to return westward towards the mainland. They "funnel," if you will, at the western tip - the cliffs on their respective departures back to the continental land mass. A trip to the cliffs in the fall migration is always an adventure.

At any rate the peak season has arrived and bird migration is quickly climbing to a zenith. This column writes itself as this season and the numbers of birds seen over the long Labor Day Weekend were impressive. While no big flights have yet been recorded this fall, the number of species seen has been impressive. And even though no noticeable big fallouts of birds have yet been seen, the birds are passing by in numbers. No two days are alike in September, so for a birder or a fisherman, one has to go birding to find birds and one must go fishing to catch fish. It is the time to get out in the field.

Marbled Godwit

A marbled godwit, the largest of the four godwit species on the planet, was discovered along the shore of Cape Pogue Bay on August 30. It remained to be seen by a large contingent of Island birders on August 31. These great looking birds are always scarce on the Island and not seen annually. They are always a welcome and exciting find.

Tree Swallows

Lastly, the annual fall congregation of tree swallows has begun. This past weekend at several locations groups numbering in the thousands were noted. A large flock in Tisbury was accompanied by swarms of dragonflies. Interestingly, the swallows and the dragonflies are chasing and eating the same insects, with the odd swallow snapping up the occasional dragonfly. Big numbers of swallows are showing up at favored spots.

The first and ever-exciting merlins of the season began appearing on August 30. These small and always hungry falcons are a joy to watch as they carve up the sky. 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