Merlin falcon
These small Merlin falcons provide instant inspiration as they rocket around the Island at this time. Dozens were seen this week along with many of their larger relatives, Peregrine falcons. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

End of October fly-by's

By E. Vernon Laux - October 25, 2007

The birding at this time of year is so good and so full of promise that every day in the field is an adventure. Time seems to pass more quickly than at other seasons and it is with a sense of wonderment and complete surprise that it is the end of October. This month was one of the "birdiest" ever seen on the Island. Over the past week the Island has "rocked" with a huge variety of birds and spectacular numbers of falcons, all occurring later than any previous year. Global warming is a reality for migrant birds.

The good news from the birder's perspective is that late October has become the most interesting time of year to bird on the Island. The birds and birding are terrific right now, particularly on days with a westerly wind direction. Spectacular flights of migrating hawks, falcons, and Accipiters occur fairly regularly.

Without a doubt, the extreme western tip of the Island - the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah - is the best place to witness this exciting annual event. Even if the flight is not spectacular, one is assured of getting good looks at some very interesting raptors as they make their way south along the coast at this migratory headland. The western tip of Martha's Vineyard acts like a funnel for these birds as well as virtually any and all migrating land bird species. It is one of the premiere birding locations on the continent at this season. As such, it is worth visiting as often as one can manage.

An added bonus is that aside from the virtual river of birds that may be flying by, over and around this location, it is splendidly beautiful, changing constantly with the angle and strength of the sun. Some mornings there will be few if any birds visible and then, as if an invisible switch was flipped, the air begins to fill with birds departing to the west. The only way to know for certain when this will happen is to be on hand to witness the spectacle.

Because the birding is so good at this time of year with both local and visiting birders kicking into high gear, there is a lot more information and data to work with. It seems one can pick up a field guide, point to a bird, and chances are it was seen flying by or skulking in a thicket in the past week. The variety of species one can and does encounter in the field at this season exceeds 200 species.

This is the time of year to see large numbers of common birds, lesser numbers of uncommon birds and the more than occasional big surprise or rarity. The key to finding rare birds is to really know the common birds. One must sort through a lot of common birds to find the unexpected. The longer one birds - in other words, the more one practices at finding and identifying birds - the more proficient one becomes at finding the occasional oddity. Like anything else, to become better it requires practice, practice, practice.

The past week brought fantastic birding to the Vineyard. Highlights were fast and furious, with birds of dizzying variety and numbers involved in observable, visible migration. Dozens of birders patrolled the west end of the Island, including Allan Keith, Sally Anderson, Sue Whiting, and Lanny McDowell - stalwarts all, who found lots of birds.

At dawn on several mornings this past week, an assorted contingent of Islanders and visitors, listening and peering intently at some distant speck in binoculars, was the norm at the Gay Head lookout. Non-birders wonder what is going on and shake their heads at the thought of crawling out of bed so early to look at birds. The birders revel at the chance to be among the abundant bird life as these feathered mites make their way south.

Red-headed woodpeckers, vesper sparrows and lots of blackbirds, blue grosbeaks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings, dickcissels, white-crowned sparrows, Lincoln's sparrows, Lapland longspurs and many other seed-eating species were found during last week. Numbers of warblers, vireos, orioles, and flycatchers were still respectable but noticeably on the decline.

This is prime time, so if you have any inclination to find birds or see unfamiliar species that are passing through, there is no better time to get out in the field. The falcon show is always a memorable and exciting sight.

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