Birds

Common Terns
The tern on the left is an adult Roseate Tern molting into its winter plumage. The other three are Common Terns, with one adult and two immatures. The adult has the complete black cap and clean mantle (back) and is the middle of the three right side birds. Both these species are staging on Island shores and about to depart for South America for the winter. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Fair-weather birding

By E. Vernon Laux - September 20, 2007

This is the time of year that birders wait for and dream about in anticipation of the stream of migrants that pass by or stop over on the Island, however briefly. This is the peak time for bird migration on the Vineyard, as it is along the entire eastern seaboard. The long-awaited and much-anticipated middle 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 only 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 weather to date this month has been the usual September wonderful and the birding has gone from good to better in the past week. Cool clear nights with light westerly winds and even some northeast winds have turned the night sky into an avian highway. First light has brought a pleasant mix of all kinds of birds that flew hundreds of miles the previous night and dropped in to rest and refuel on the Island, at least for a day.

Bouts of inclement weather or a passing squall with rain are equally beneficial for birding at this season as they force otherwise strong, high-flying species to detour and go to ground. This is particularly true for many shorebird species that prefer to skip this delightful Island on their southbound journey and may only appear if "forced" to by bad weather.

From east to west

The birding these past 10 days have been very good. From the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah to the west to Cape Pogue and Wasque on Chappaquiddick to the east and all points in between, there have been birds. In whatever taxonomic sequence one chooses to start from, birds are on the move and their numbers are building. It is a great time to be able to write about birds and migration, to point out highlights and to just marvel and babble on about the wonder of this annual migration.

The sheer number of observers and all their sightings of normally uncommon and rare birds that get seen in the middle of September make the bird news a bit daunting. By necessity, this writer chooses what he thinks most important and interesting for inclusion.

The season's raptor migration has really kicked into gear. Last week many sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks as well as all three species of falcon were reported - American kestrel, merlin, and the peregrine falcon. All the aforementioned will continue to increase during the next two weeks. Mid-morning with a northwest wind and the Gay Head Cliffs are a sure spot to witness some migrating hawks.

Migration month

There are also lots of migrating land birds. Generally, early in the morning the birds are relocating and moving around. By about 9:30 am, they will settle in to a thicket, woodland, or other sheltered area to feed for the day. They are easier to identify when they are not flying overhead. Listen and look for groups of black-capped chickadees because invariably migrant warblers, vireos, and the like will forage with them during the day. They know that the chickadees are locals and will lead them to food, and they will sound the alarm if danger should appear.

The numbers of birds engaged in the fall migration in September is much larger than it is in May (spring). The reason for this is simple: the breeding season has just finished and there are big numbers of young birds have been added to the overall population. The rigors, pitfalls, and dangers of migration, general "rookie" mistakes, and over-wintering take a toll on these young birds and each the population of each species 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, in the spring they stay away from the coast and offshore islands where it's cooler and spring comes later. Conversely, in the fall they gravitate to the coast and offshore islands where moderating effects of the warm ocean water and abundant fruit along the coastline are the big attractions.

At any rate the peak season has arrived; bird migration is quickly climbing to a zenith. 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 and for a birder, like fishermen in the derby, one has to go birding to find birds and one must go fishing to catch fish.

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 vernlaux@comcast.net.