Late to leave: one of the last two osprey remaining at the six active Oak Bluffs nests suns itself one morning late in September in the harbor nest. Most osprey left earlier in the month for their South American wintering grounds. This young bird was hatched at this nest in June. Photo by Julian K. Robinson

Columbus Day weekend rules

By E. Vernon Laux - October 4, 2007

The birding calendar is punctuated with big asterisks. Historically the big three birding weekends of the year have always been Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Columbus Day. All three are very good for birds, but for the past 15 years or more it seems certain that if you could only bird during one of these big three it would behoove you to choose Columbus Day.

The weather takes a serious turn towards winter in early October with ambient nighttime temperatures starting to drop down to freezing or below. This harbinger of what is to come along with the decreasing day length makes things happen in the bird world.

Insectivorous birds, mostly young birds in their first year that may have been lingering too long, get a serious boot in the feathers to migrate, now. This includes a host of birds - all the warblers, vireos, and flycatchers, to name a few.

The cold also kicks the sparrows into migration overdrive in early and mid-October. There are mornings, after large nocturnal movements, when sparrows can be seen flying in to south side beaches. The birds are exhausted after traveling too far over open ocean, now attempting to make a landfall.

The gulls know all about this and are quick to take advantage of the songbirds' plight. There are invariably a few mornings in October when all the gulls are fat and sassy after dining on small birds that were too exhausted to out-fly them as they made a break for landfall. Fortunately, bird populations have been dealing with this forever. There are really more birds than could possibly survive or breed in limited space the next season, and it is all part of the big picture.

Waterfowl also are beginning to return in droves right now. The Vineyard is blessed with staggering concentrations of sea ducks during migration and into the winter months. Look off any headland and it is hard to miss long lines of scoters and eiders streaming by. Puddle ducks are also on the move and virtually every pond, great pond, or wet area is sure to be hosting some waterfowl migrants during the next few weeks.

Then there are the raptors. The Vineyard has the best falcon migration in New England. The Island is a magnet for these fastest of birds that capture their prey on the wing. Merlins and peregrine falcons are routine this weekend, and they will not be alone. Almost anything is possible at this season and in the recent past more rare birds are found around Columbus Day than at any other time.

It seems that many birds get "pushed" to finally migrate in early October and some of the most "off the wall" vagrants, the rarest of the rare, are found not only on the Island but all over the northeast at this juncture. Another nice thing about now is that one need not get up at the crack of dawn as the days are noticeably shorter and getting out early is not so difficult with the shorter days.

With Columbus Day's ascension as the premiere time for birding, as opposed to Labor Day, it makes one wonder about global warming. Many birds are migrating later than previously and average arrival dates for many neo-tropical migrants are earlier in the spring and later in the fall. It also is certain that October has replaced September as the "birdiest" month, which has to mean something. At any rate this is a big weekend for birding.

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