Birds : Birding bonanza
The past couple of weeks have been terrific for beach lovers, vacationers, and anyone lucky enough to go for a swim. Late August is hard to beat, but for birders September is better. Birds are on the move, and any night with a westerly wind - a light northwest wind is best - nocturnal migrants will be on the move. Most land birds migrate only at night, and the night sky in late August through October turns into an unseen avian highway.
Migrant birds wait for certain conditions, eagerly anticipating approaching high-pressure systems with northwest winds and rising barometric pressure. When it happens they take advantage of it to begin their southbound migration. The evening of August 14 saw the night sky alive with birds of all description. The morning found migrant warblers, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes, orioles, tanagers, sparrows, and others flitting about in mixed flocks in groves and thickets where the day before there had been only local breeding birds.
The number and variety of birds encountered in the very last week of August and the first half of September is far and away, heads and tails, above that seen at any other time of year with the possible exception of early October.
The southbound exodus from the north woods for a variety of insectivorous birds has begun. The southbound journey of a sometimes-bewildering array of waders, plovers, and sandpipers, reaches its greatest variety over Labor Day Weekend.
The best place on the Island to be overwhelmed is at its extreme western tip - the Gay Head Cliffs. It is an amazing spot, although the birds can run hot and cold. I have been there at dawn with not a migrant in sight or earshot. Then, as if a switch had been thrown, thousands of birds begin to appear overhead, all heading from east to west in a mass exodus back to the mainland. It's not a sight that one forgets.
Late August and the first half of September are the best and only times to see many species on the Vineyard. The upcoming weeks provide the best opportunity to see Baird's and buff-breasted sandpipers, Arctic nesting species that winter in South America. During the spring migration these birds move north through the middle of the continent, as do most adults in the fall. But with predominant northwest winds, small numbers of immature birds making their first southbound migration may appear for a brief time on Island shores.
Although the aforementioned species may appear, they are by no means a sure thing. They often are not seen or detected at all for several years on the Vineyard. While the days have been growing noticeably shorter, birds on the move have been hard to ignore. The fall migration is rapidly intensifying. On the beaches, immature shorebirds have begun to arrive and mingle with southbound adults.
Tern numbers are impressive at many favored spots. This is a great opportunity to study the wide variety of plumages that these birds exhibit. A couple of hours spent looking carefully at a flock of terns is most educational. Terns are fascinating and only here for a short while longer.
While watching a flock of terns attempting to sort out the various plumages, pay close attention to the birds' behavior and what they are doing. You may see an adult approaching a mixed flock with a fish in its beak. This adult will only feed its own chick, which it locates by sound. The bird will fly over the entire flock calling and all the young birds call back, hoping for a meal. It may make several passes and generally it creates a bit of mayhem among the hungry youngsters.
Nortons Point in Edgartown is currently hosting massive numbers of terns. A pair of black skimmers, the only birds in the world with elongated lower mandibles, is in the large colony, and a sandwich tern has been frequently spotted. Additionally there are many shorebirds, and a marbled godwit has been frequenting the beach for a week or more.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky.