Birds : October bliss
Martha's Vineyard dodged a bullet, so to speak, as another hurricane, albeit a mini one, just missed Martha's Vineyard over the weekend. Hurricanes can and do drive seabirds and many others species great distances from where they normally occur. Birders may get a chance to experience a once in a lifetime event when the big one comes. Fortuitously for us they are a rare occurrence as the property damage and destruction they wreak may take decades to repair.
September, unfailingly, passes too quickly, every year. This extraordinary month, punctuated by large flights of birds, tied to the passage of frontal systems and prevailing winds, is fantastic for birding. Fortunately, birders are not forced to go cold turkey, i.e. forced to endure poor birding, with its passing. October can be as good as and even better than September on Martha's Vineyard.
October provides great birding action with not only the arrival of seed-eating land birds but a phenomenal number of water birds ranging from loons and grebes to tens and even hundreds of thousands of sea ducks by month's end. Wherever one happens to be, whether talking to friends downtown or standing on a favorite beach, there are birds to be seen and heard. Chip notes given by migrant land birds seem to be omnipresent to those tuned to the frequency and flyovers by loons, herons, geese, or ducks.
October seems even more vibrant than September as the days continue to shorten. Bird's daily activity - feeding, drinking, resting - is crammed into fewer hours of daylight and the "force" of migration appears more urgent than earlier in the season. Impressive, loose flocks of passing sea ducks, heavy-bodied common eiders and all three scoter species, become a common sight on the waters surrounding Martha's Vineyard, especially later this month.
The greatest thing about birding in October, the most irresistible for hawk watching enthusiasts, is the migration of Accipiters and falcons. The largest numbers of peregrine falcons and sharp-shinned hawks ever recorded in Massachusetts both have been reported from the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah right around the Columbus Day Weekend. The high counts occurred after periods of prolonged nasty weather, with ten days or more of cold rainy weather with northeast winds and then the passage of a cold front delivering clear skies and strong northwest winds on which all the birds migrated.
Coincidentally, the maximum count for sharp-shinned hawks in Massachusetts was 1,100 individuals on this date in 1982. These small (blue jay-sized) hawks have relatively short rounded wings and long tails. They feed primarily on small birds that they capture in direct pursuit or close quarters ambush using their long tail as a rudder to steer through tree branches.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
The inspirational peregrine falcon, the most highly sought falcon, the most prestigious for Saudi Sheiks to possess, is a superb aerialist and renowned hunter. This species is regular, at times even common, along the south shore of Martha's Vineyard and at the cliffs at the west end of Martha's Vineyard in October and November.
A few of these powerful falcons overwinter, and the species is now being reported during virtually all months of the year. As it has become reestablished and introduced to nesting ledges on skyscrapers in many New England cities, the adults and young presumably do a little occasional wandering to the coast. The species scientific name is Falco peregrinus, which translates to "wandering falcon." On October 12, 1985, in just under two hours, 46 peregrines were observed departing from the Gay Head Cliffs. Occasionally during October from three to as many as 15 individuals have been seen hanging in the west wind like so many falcon kites at the same time at this great spot for observing this species.
Even though the wind has been sporadically from the west, interspersed with a fair bit of northeast winds, the birding has been good. A couple of unusual birds from the Midwest in the form of lark sparrows were found last week. Gardens and fields with lots of cover are jammed with migrant songbirds now. This past week, large numbers of chipping sparrows were on the move accompanied by song, swamp, savannah, and white-throated, white-crowned, and other sparrow species.
Birds are everywhere right now and falcons in particular are relatively easy to find. Hardly a day passes at this time of year without seeing a fast-flying merlin, a soaring or cruising peregrine falcon or a small, colorful American kestrel - the smallest of North American falcons. Merlins seem always to be the most exciting as these rambunctious birds have a voracious appetite and always seem to be on the hunt or harassing other larger birds in nearby airspace.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky.