Birds : Late September: fantastic birding
For the birder, without fail, September passes all too quickly. A sensational month for birds, it overwhelms one's senses with bird migration reaching levels not encountered at any other time of year. Every day during this most delicious of months is to be savored. So it is with no small regret that this column is being written as it signals the end of another glorious September.
That said, October on the Vineyard and in fact in a good portion of North America can be just as good as or even better for birds than September. Here on the Island, October is the month when tens of thousands of sea ducks return, the bulk of the peregrine falcon migration and largest flights of accipiters occurs and droves of seed-eating land birds (i.e. sparrows and finches) arrive. Additionally, more rare and vagrant land birds and strays of all sorts are likely to occur during this month than any other.
So, it is with mixed feelings that one views the progress of the calendar. On the one hand the bulk of the long-distant migrants like shorebirds and terns have departed and the greatest numbers of warblers, flycatchers, vireos, and other insectivores are past. On the other hand there is still a fair smattering of these birds lingering and they are joined by impressive numbers of loons, grebes, waterfowl of every description, raptors, sparrows, and whatever species of winter finch that may decide to stage a southward irruption. The forthcoming month of October is a very good month, some years the best month for birding on the Vineyard.
The birding has been excellent in the recent past despite the lack of passage of any big cold fronts. Birds have been moving steadily by and almost all observers will agree that a day in the field is a day well spent.
The Island is particularly well situated for falcon migration. All three species from the large peregrine falcon along with its smaller cousins the merlin and American kestrel have all been well represented.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
These strong flying birds migrate south with other bird species and tend to move along coastlines and outlying islands. They tend to concentrate along the south shore of the Vineyard and favored locales on this island include Wasque on Chappaquiddick, Squibnocket in Chilmark, and the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah. Also very good for observing migrating falcons are the nearby islands of Noman's Land and the entire Elizabeth Island chain, particularly Cuttyhunk. One early October day about a decade ago when conditions were perfect for a big movement, 45 peregrine falcons were seen in an hour and a half from the Gay Head Cliffs.
So far this September the highest number of peregrines reported in any morning has been four individuals. Generally, the peak of this species migration occurs on or around October 10. Merlins are thick right now and as many as 12 a day have been seen by single observers this past week. They continue to increase, peaking right around the end of the month.
Without a doubt, the Vineyard is the absolute best place to be birding in New England at this time of year. While most places are good at this season, the Island is better. Aside from the virtually guaranteed falcon show, spectacular numbers of waterfowl and lots of land birds are the rule.
A Midwestern species called the dickcissel has been seen and heard flying overhead from the western tip of the Island on several occasions. Its distinctive deep call carries surprisingly far and the species is heard far more frequently than it is seen. There have also been at least two western kingbirds seen here this fall as well.
Several buff-breasted sandpipers and as many as nine American golden plovers as well as a lingering upland sandpiper have been visiting the fields at Katama in Edgartown. This remarkable habitat, now under the auspices of the FARM Institute, is in better condition and attracting more birds than at any time in the past decade. The fields are always worth checking, especially after inclement weather.
As birders become more proficient at identifying birds, species that were rarely detected are now being reported much more frequently. In many cases, it reflects a change in a species status, but in others, it is clearly a case of improved coverage and more highly skilled observers that is causing the increase in sightings. At any rate lesser black-backed gulls in first and second year plumages are being found with increasing regularity. Several of these birds are around the Island right now.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky!