Birds : Sparrows arrive
The delightful weather that characterizes fall on Martha's Vineyard has been much in evidence, and conditions have been idyllic for birders. Lots of strong westerly winds to literally blow birds out to the east, followed by mild weather and little wind have made for excellent birding. The birding has been good and Columbus Day weekend, traditionally one of the top three weekends of the year for birds, lived up to its reputation.
At the west end of Martha's Vineyard, the Gay Head Cliffs were jumping with evidence of a massive nocturnal migration on the evening of October 10. On the morning of October 11 there was no wind and birds call notes were able to carry and be heard from a much greater distance than usual. There were lots and lots of birds. Overwhelming, staggering, impressive were words used to describe it. Wouldn't it be great if every morning was like it.
All weekend long migrant falcons and Accipiters made the cliffs their own way station. From 9:30 am until mid-afternoon around 3 pm, there were birds continually appearing for various amounts of time before climbing and descending to the northwest. The peregrine falcons seem to relish riding the updrafts on the cliffs when the wind is from the west, often flying by the observer at eye level. The Accipiters, Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks, hit the cliffs and climbed high into the sky before dropping back towards Cuttyhunk and the mainland.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
While not finding anything really rare or unexpected, the sight of visual migration is one of the best experiences in birding. Lots of birds, everywhere - in the sky, in the bushes, in the parking lot. In fact, there were birds dropping out of the sky as well as departing to the west. There was nowhere to look where one would not see birds.
The most abundant species included yellow-rumped warblers, American robins, various blackbirds, cedar waxwings, and blue jays. There were lots of sparrows, juncos, and both ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets. Additionally, there were lots of ones and twos or sixes of many other species. There was constant chipping from sparrows - white-throated and swamp sparrows and a few Lincoln's and white-crowned sparrows. There were also small numbers of all three regularly occurring falcons - peregrine, merlin, and American kestrel - as well as fair numbers of Accipiters, including dozens of sharp-shinned hawks and small numbers of Cooper's hawks.
The appearance of large numbers of yellow-rumped warblers, the last of the warblers to appear in migration and a common over-wintering species, signals the end of the warbler migration. Impressive numbers, hundreds of these birds, were visible and on the move over this past weekend. With so many yellow-rumps around, it essentially swamps the observer, making it difficult to find anything else. This was the case looking for land birds by the end of last week.
Dickcissels are small sparrow-like birds that resemble house or English sparrows (which are actually weaver finches) that breed in fields in the Midwest and winter in Argentina. They are long-distance migrants and show up along the eastern seaboard in fall migration in varying numbers. Some years there are none, most years there are a few, and rarely they are almost commonplace for a few days at a time. This fall I would describe their numbers and occurrence as average.
The waters surrounding Martha's Vineyard are getting livelier with bird life. Migrating loons, grebes, a wide variety of ducks, northern gannets and many species of gulls are enjoying the bounty of sea food present. With the gales of November just around the corner when the wind will be howling from the north at 40 miles per hour, decreasing water temperatures will slow the movements of small fish, and birds will be quick to take advantage of them.
The next month, the waters continue to get increasingly productive for birds whilst the land birding gets less interesting. That said, the next few weeks are inordinately good for rare birds. Vagrant flycatchers always come to this writer's mind as the calendar ticks into mid-October. More typical, almost expected rarities, like western kingbirds, should appear and the chances for an ash-throated flycatcher or some long-tailed tropical looking beauty like a scissor-tailed flycatcher or fork-tailed flycatcher from South America are very real. It is clearly not time to hunker down for the winter yet.
Blackbirds and sparrows are abundant right now. Several huge flocks of mixed blackbirds, comprised primarily of common grackles with smaller numbers of red-winged blackbirds, European starlings, and brown-headed cowbirds are roaming Martha's Vineyard. They can show up anywhere and one big flock has been daily visiting the woods on Lambert's Cove Road both in Tisbury and West Tisbury.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky.