Birds : September magic
While most of us are bemoaning the end of a glorious summer and the younger crowd is of mixed emotions about returning to school, in the natural world, the entire upcoming month provides the most excitement and best birding of the year. This is far and away the best time of year for those interested in birds. If you could only look for birds for one day, one weekend or one month of the year, the time one would choose to spend that limited time in the field would occur in September.
The fall migration is often spectacular along the east coast. Unlike spring when most birds migrate north in the center of the continent and avoid the cold coastline, the reverse is true in the fall. The warm waters act as a heat sink and abundant fruit and berry supplies along with temperatures moderating the night air make the coast ideal in the fall. The fruit and berries are a welcome food supply, compared to the lack of available insect food that occurs inland.
Additionally, since the breeding season has just ended, bird populations of all species are significantly higher with all the young birds, first-time migrants, in the mix. It is a magical combo along the northeast coastline. Some of the finest birding in the world occurs on the Vineyard at this season. For Vineyard and many visiting birders, the fall means more birds, heading for the Island, on purpose.
It seems that anything with wings (and fins) is on the move in September. The skies are jammed with migrant birds. Given favorable migratory conditions, the night skies actually have more birds in them than during the day. The majority of land birds migrate at night. On clear nights in September and October, the night sky with light northwest winds is loud with calls and chips from nocturnal migrants.
On certain favored (almost predictable) nights, millions of birds migrate, creating a veritable super highway, a river of birds in the night sky, as they wing their way south. The tailwinds carry the birds south and east, to the coast, where they must correct their course westward or end up over the very unfriendly open ocean (no trees, bushes, grasses - i.e. nowhere to land, no food or water for land birds out over the North Atlantic). They must head back west to find land if they overshoot, or perish.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
This flight path, honed by countless migrations and tens of thousands of years of evolutionary pressure, obviously works. Although with the exponentially increasing human population and changes wrought on the landscape that are so rapidly changing the face of the planet and these birds' migratory routes, there is no way for species to adapt fast enough to alter their routes. The trip becomes more hazardous with fewer places to stop over every year.
At any rate, certain spots along the coastline act as sort of an avian funnel, a bottleneck, if you will, that concentrates migrant birds into remarkable numbers that can never be seen at more ordinary locations. The most famous such spot for sheer volume and diversity is Cape May Point in southern New Jersey. The awesome display of bird life on a big flight day is truly remarkable. The sky is full of birds, big and small, and there are so many that it is impossible for two observers to pick out the same bird.
The western tip of the Vineyard, the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah, mimics Cape May Point as a tremendous birding locale but with a much smaller total volume of birds. It is a much easier and friendly place to bird and there is no comparison in terms of scenery. The Vineyard wins hands-down and the birding in many respects is better than what one can find in Cape May. Often, peregrine falcons, merlins, and several other species of hawks will be stacked up, hanging overhead like so many lookout kites in the wind, providing stunning views just a little over the cliffs.
This past weekend is historically one of the best weekends of the year for birds on the Vineyard. Both birds and birders were in abundant supply and many long distance migrants, if they appear at all, show up in the little window surrounding the first week of September. Virtually anything is possible over this week and some of the most rare birds ever found here have occurred during this brief time period.
This is a month not to be missed for birders. Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky.