Birds

golden-crowned kinglet
This female golden-crowned kinglet is looking fascinated at its mirror image in the driver's window of my car. There was a huge migration of this species on the night of Oct. 14 and while out birding on the morning of Oct. 15 I came back to my car to find this bird sitting on the car. Either stunned or exhausted, the tiny bird allowed me a very close approach to take this picture. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Migration hurdles

By E. Vernon Laux - October 18, 2007

The week that just passed was outrageous in the birder's world. It seemed no matter where one went, there were lots of birds. The migration "gates," if you will, were wide open and even if you were not able to spend time in the field, it was hard not to miss birds moving in the course of a day's activity. Birds of great variety were all making a push to get south as winter is coming quickly to points north.

Observing the ocean several mornings this past week to the south, looking at sea birds and ducks, virtually every time I spent more than 10 minutes I began picking up small land birds, beating into the wind attempting to make a landfall. It did not matter where one was located as the massive bird movements of the night before with moderate to strong west/northwest winds had delivered the many night flyers farther south and east than they had intended. They were spread over the ocean to the south and east of the Island, fighting to make it back to land or it is game over.

As daylight arrives, they realize their error and quickly turn around, now fighting the wind that had carried them so easily that they had overshot their mark. Early in the day the birds come in fairly strong, but tired. Several juncos, a white-throated and two white-crowned sparrows, and kinglets, both golden-crowned and ruby-crowned, a yellow-bellied sapsucker and an eastern phoebe all flew in from the ocean between 8 and 9 am on the morning of Oct. 15. A couple of the birds almost hit me in the head which was quite something as I had been following them in the telescope and then binoculars for upwards of 10 minutes as they struggled to make a landfall.

As the day wore on more birds were seen struggling hard into the wind for the shoreline. It brings home the fact of just how difficult - both from a physical and navigational standpoint - is the performance of bird migration. Kinglets, the smallest birds in North America after hummingbirds, which weigh in at just a scant 6 grams, moved in large numbers this past week. One morning in a particular spot there were 15 ruby-crowned and 25 golden-crowned kinglets, just a sampling of their abundance almost everywhere on the Island but even more so at funneling points. Migrating at night in the many thousands, they were widespread.

Other very small ubiquitous birds include the red-breasted nuthatch, which is a small, neatly marked bird of the north woods that feeds on seeds of spruces. Last year this species was very hard to find, but this year they are impossible to miss. There are large areas of the boreal forest in the east that are having a bad cone and seed year and these nuthatches have been pushing south since July. Purple finches have been coming with them and the first pine siskins of the season were also overhead in small numbers, uttering their distinctive calls on the morning of Oct. 15. Brown creepers, odd little woodpecker-like birds that belong to their own family, have been on the move as well and were frequently encountered this past week.

Sparrows to falcons

It seems that any field, garden, or weed patch with abundant seed heads has been loaded with visitors this past week, including virtually every sparrow that occurs here as well as the occasional blue grosbeak and more frequent indigo bunting. White-crowned sparrow - very sleek, rather large sparrows - have been abundant and widespread for the past 10 days. Generally it is almost all immature birds that appear but this season has brought more adults than this writer/birder has ever encountered before.

There have been several orange-crowned warblers seen this past week. This rather drab species has been encountered with greater frequency in October seemingly every year. This is probably a reflection of increasing observer effort and experience rather than a telling increase in the species numbers. Identifying these rather non-descript birds is not for the faint of heart.

The activity on and over the waters surrounding the Island continues to increase. The numbers of arriving sea ducks, which gets routine for Islanders, takes the breath away of visiting birders and their reaction helps reinforce how special this place and these birds are. Loon numbers are also building and these unique birds can be seen passing over the Island most mornings in some numbers. Their unmistakable flight silhouettes belie how fast and far these "awkward" looking birds actually travel in the air. They fly better and faster than they look.

The falcon flight has been impressive during this time period as well, and dozens of peregrines have been seen patrolling the Gay Head Cliffs. Merlins and American kestrels have been seen as well and in general, all agree it has been a great month of October. Lastly, Lanny McDowell of West Tisbury saw and photographed a swallow at the cliffs last weekend that was either a cliff or a cave swallow. The pictures support it being one or the other, but unfortunately these fast flying birds are hard to get a good look at and are even harder to photograph.

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.