Birds : Rapid changes
The end of October heralds major change in the natural world, the birds's world. Weather systems and frontal systems continue to increase in duration and strength, accompanied by colder temperatures and ever shorter days. The signs of the rapidly approaching winter are everywhere. The Christmas Bird Counts are only seven weeks away. Birds that have not yet migrated due to injury, illness, abundant food source, or immaturity are now doing so with life-saving purpose.
While birding now requires a hat, maybe gloves and an overcoat, it is very rewarding. There are, right now, a greater number of bigger birds on the move than at any other time of the year. The waters surrounding Martha's Vineyard are jammed with birdlife, ranging from both common and red-throated loons, to remarkable numbers of sea ducks, to impressive Northern gannets and other pelagic birds to an ever increasing number of gulls of a variety of species.
Any favorite spot along any Island shoreline will be well worth a visit at this time of year, especially around dawn. Even going about one's business in any Island town, an aware birder can spot interesting birds passing by high overhead. It is a sad morning indeed when loons flying by fast and high cannot be seen or loose flocks of cormorants or geese detected as they make their respective ways south and west at 50 to 80 miles per hour.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
The loons this past week have been especially noticeable as they took advantage of the strong northeast winds to carry them southwest. Loons are very heavy birds and must run and paddle and flap for a long distance on the water's surface to get airborne. Once flying they look like they are sinking, as though they might crash without warning. They resemble nothing so much as an out-of-control small person attempting to ride a bike for the first-time. They look "adventurous" on the wing.
It turns out that once airborne, they are fast and direct flyers. Precisely because they are so heavy - called having heavy wing loading - and ungainly in the air, they must fly fast to stay airborne. When their normal flight speed is augmented with a strong 30- to 40-mph tail wind, these birds attain impressive ground speeds.
Imagine cruising along at 80 miles per hour for 10 hours in a straight line down the coast. That is 800 miles in that one flight. South Florida is only 1,500 miles from here. That means a loon that waits for the right wind direction can make this journey in two days. Or it might stop for a few weeks and fish along the south side of Martha's Vineyard, where there are lots of fish for loons to fatten up on before heading south to say, south Jersey, Cape May, where they might spend another week or two. Loons use all of these strategies. What is most impressive is that they are capable of moving long distances in a short time, leaving a harsh area to a more benevolent environment, as necessary.
Enough about loons, our most primitive North American birds, for now. The prolonged east winds have made for some fine pelagic birding, especially in Cape Cod Bay, along the north side of the Cape. Cape Cod's unique shape acts as a kind of seabird trap during prolonged northeast storms. The birds get pushed up against the shoreline from Boston southward. They fly along the coast heading south, then follow the sweep of the Cape around to the east and then turn north in Eastham and Wellfleet before reaching the tip of the Cape at Provincetown.
When they round Race Point they are again buffeted by unobstructed fierce northeast winds. So they then choose the path of least resistance and make their way across large Cape Cod Bay to the east shoreline of Massachusetts and again repeat the process. It makes for the best land-based pelagic birding in the world. Nor'easters on Cape Cod in October and November have become increasingly famous in the birding community around North America. The largest northeast storms trigger a birder response with birders making the effort to get to the Cape for the hoped-for pelagic birding show. It is becoming a birding destination in the foulest weather imaginable.
While the winds have been persistently northeast, there has still been impressive numbers of sparrows and finches, as well as fairly impressive numbers of migrating falcons and Accipiters. All three falcons - American kestrel, merlin and peregrine falcon - were found virtually every day over the past 10 days. Lanny McDowell of West Tisbury has found some interesting shorebirds this past week at Tisbury Great Pond, including some 16 white-rumped sandpipers and a very late and unusual stilt sandpiper, always a good find on Martha's Vineyard, and even more so in late October.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky.