Buff-breasted sandpiper
Buff-breasted sandpipers are casual fall visitors that appear in small numbers in late August and early September in fields and along edges of the Great Ponds. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Visions of hurricanes

By E. Vernon Laux - September 13, 2007

The middle of September is a magical time for just about everything - not only on the Vineyard but also everywhere in New England. The weather is generally perfect, interspersed with the odd hurricane or nor' easter. The rapidly decreasing day length is felt by all living things at this latitude and there is a sense of urgency in the air - especially the night air, the night sky, as hundreds, thousands, even millions of birds move south to avoid the upcoming harsh northern winter.

Hurricanes, fearsome storms, are most apt to occur during this month, when water temperatures are warmest. They have been called monsters, beasts, wrecking balls, behemoths, etc. Wherever they hit, they can cause extensive damage and one can only hope that many coastal areas will not rebuild, as this is nature's way of keeping the coast... well, coastal.

Periodically, these tremendous storms will occur. Don't mess with Mother Nature is the proper course of action, the correct response to these great storms. No matter what mankind builds along the coastline, it cannot and will not withstand basic coastal forces. The coastline is malleable and must remain so. The only constant thing about it is rapid change, particularly after large violent storms whether hurricanes or winter nor'easters.

From a birder's point of view, hurricanes and tropical storms are very heady stuff - displacing and transporting birds thousands of miles from where they want to be. Seabirds, pelagic species that spend all their time at sea, coming to land only to lay a single egg, often fly out in front of these massive storms, attempting to avoid wind speeds that are dangerous and life-threatening. They may even end up in New England and present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for regional birders. No doubt about it, the big storms can be very exciting.

Occasionally a large hurricane will make a landfall to the south of us - say, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina - and then head back out over water and re-intensify before making another landfall nearby. Landbirds that survive the severe winds of one side of the storm sometimes end up in the eye of the storm, where the winds are nearly calm. Just like the tornado in the Wizard of Oz, the eye is surrounded by a devastating wall of wind.

Having just been battered by the leading edge of the wall, small birds want no part of getting back into that ferocious storm. So they stay in the eye, trapped by the cyclonic winds until - and if and when - the storm makes another landfall. Then the exhausted birds, hungry and desperately thirsty, have no choice but to stay ashore (if they ever regain it) and take their chances.

The "dean of field ornithology," the late Ludlow Griscom, witnessed such an occurrence at Sears Point in Chatham in 1955 and wrote it up in his journal. Spellbinding is how this writer would describe the telling of this phenomenal drop-out of birds. It is crazy stuff that birders wish for. One can only wait and hope!

Impending hurricane fever aside, the birding has been terrific for the past 10 days. While no big cold fronts have passed, the Gay Head Cliffs have still been very good. On Labor Day Weekend at the cliffs Bob Shriber, a seasonal Aquinnah resident, found an immature male yellow-headed blackbird feeding with a flock of brown-headed cowbirds. He called several birders, and Lanny McDowell of West Tisbury managed to get photos. This past weekend, Bob Shriber had 12 species of warblers, thousands of cedar waxwings, hunting merlins and lots more on September 8 at the cliffs. It was great to be there!

Migration is ramping up right now and the next few weeks have unlimited potential for lots of common birds and a few rare ones. The next night when the wind puffs or blows from the northwest, there should be a large movement of birds and the island will be inundated with southbound traveling birds. Expect the unexpected and revel in the miracle of migration.

Things are happening everywhere outside! Get out and look around if you possibly can.

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