Bonaparte's gulls
Bonaparte's gulls are small, tern-like gulls that are currently all around the Island in pursuit of small fish. They may be encountered almost anywhere over salt water. These three are immature birds. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Powerful weather

By E. Vernon Laux - November 15, 2007

November is an exciting month. It has everything both in terms of weather and birds. A few last warm balmy days usually occur as well as the first "mean" nor'easter of the season. While the land bird migration slows to a trickle, the waters surrounding the Island are jam-packed with migrant and over-wintering birds. Historically, this month has provided some of the most rare and outlandish vagrants that have ever been found on Martha's Vineyard.

It is a month when, ornithologically speaking, anything might appear. From tropical flycatchers, "wrecks" of alcids following or during nor'easters, stray shorebirds or invasions of winter finches, November has much to offer. With Thanksgiving being celebrated just a week from today, exceptionally early, the weather may be milder than usual and more people will get outdoors. Walking off large meals, birders have found many fabulous birds.

This time of year rapidly moving frontal systems drive across the continent with more impetus than at other seasons. Cold fronts and warm fronts battle for control. With the days growing quickly and noticeably shorter it is pretty much a "no-brainer" to predict that winter is coming and cold air masses moving out of the Canadian Arctic will eventually prevail for the next few months.

Bird populations of every species are very high at this season with many hatch-year birds inflating the numbers. The first year of a bird's life is far and away the most dangerous and literally half the birds that fledge will not make it through their first year. That is the way it is, has been, and optimistically will always be. It is nature's way. If all the birds survived, the habitats would be quickly overcrowded, creating all sorts of problems, shortages, and hardships.


Many first-time migrants, rookies if you will, get into all sorts of situations and make many mistakes. They can and often do show up hundreds and even thousands of miles from where their species usually goes in migration. Let us assume, for example, that an individual bird began migrating in late August or September and began heading in a nontraditional, different direction than that used by others of its species.

Say it took a left instead of a right at the big intersection in the sky, or something like that. Being a resourceful bird, it managed to continue on its chosen path until it hit a boundary, let's say the coastline, then turned and followed its direction. Maybe it went north, maybe it went south, and who knows as its internal compass is already a little different.

At any rate it continues until it either finds an area that is suitable for its needs or is stopped by the arrival of winter and its attendant cold temperatures that severely limit availability of food items, such as insects. Then they run out of gas and their experiment in wandering comes to a close. This is how many species disperse and find and colonize new areas. They are always pushing the envelope and stray individuals that survive turn into colonizing individuals. How does one suppose birds like the original finches that arrived on the Galapagos Islands got there?

So with cold weather getting serious in November, birds that are a long way from where their species usually goes are much more obvious. November is an excellent time for some truly off-the-wall birds to appear. An immature scissor-tailed flycatcher was discovered in Truro on the Outer Cape this past weekend. Think of how far a bird may have traveled if it began in late August. The sky is truly the limit.

That will be enough waxing philosophically about vagrant birds for now. The Island and surrounding waters is covered with birds right now. Snow buntings, extraordinarily marked little birds from the far north, have arrived in droves on Island beaches and to a lesser degree open fields. There are hundreds along and in the beach grass from Aquinnah to Chappaquiddick.

Most exciting is the appearance of winter finches all over New England, with the vanguard just showing up on the Island. Virtually all the finches, pine and evening grosbeaks, red and white-winged crossbills, pine siskins, common redpolls and striking bohemian waxwings are all being reported from widely scattered places in New England and the Great Lakes and they appear to be headed this way. Should they arrive, it will make it a very exciting winter for birders.

The tremendous numbers of sea ducks are impossible to miss if one goes and looks out over any expanse of salt water around the Island. Many thousands of birds are to be found off Wasque and all along East Beach on Chappaquiddick, all along the south shore but particularly where there are mussel beds such as off of Squibnocket and Lucy Vincent beaches in Chilmark and off the south shore of Aquinnah. The usual suspects are common eiders, black scoters, white-winged scoters, and surf scoters as well as a variety of red-breasted mergansers, oldsquaws and various other ducks.

Large numbers of common and red-throated loons, horned grebes, northern gannets, and Bonaparte's gulls have also been all around the Island, including in Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds, especially after northeast winds. Lastly, a northern shrike, an amazing robin-sized bird with perching feet but a raptorial beak was found in Gay Head on Nov. 11 by Lanny McDowell of West Tisbury. This is the second shrike report in recent weeks and bodes well for having these birds around this winter.

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