Birds : September rocks
This month is magical for birding. Every day, no matter where one looks, birds are on the move. Fleeing the approaching winter and consequent lack of food, these most mobile of creatures, ranging from loons to hummingbirds, warblers to sparrows, all are heading south from where they nested. Some birds, including many shorebird species, flee to the extreme southern portions of the planet, enjoying the higher latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, with bountiful daylight in the Austral summer, just as they did in the Arctic six months earlier. These birds see more sunlight, annually, than any other life forms.
Visible signs of bird migration are all around. Flocks of tree swallows, some numbering in the many thousands, are massing in many locations, particularly along the south shore. Mixed flocks of blackbirds, common grackles, red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds can be seen moving in thick, dark clouds both early and late in the day as they move to and from roosting spots.
White-faced storm petrel
At 7 am, on August 28, the day before Tropical Storm Danny was to hit, we discovered a white-faced storm petrel flying due south, exactly 19 miles south of Wasque. Storm petrels are birds of tropical seas and are scarce in the North Atlantic. The species had been recorded a handful of times in the region, but all of these sightings were made south of the continental shelf break in warm Gulf Stream waters some 100 plus miles south of the Vineyard.
Peter Trimble of Centerville and this writer were heading offshore at about 21 knots when the petrel appeared off the starboard bow matching the boat's speed. I looked out and said, "Look a flying fish is soaring up ahead." It remained airborne and finally I realized it was not a fish but a bird. It kept submerging its long legs, resembling the tail of a flying fish digging in for more traction to take off and glide again.
Upon realizing it was a bird, I screamed, "Holy cow, it's a white-faced storm petrel." Running for our cameras we accelerated, and were able to take hundreds of digital photos. Though most of them were blurry and out of focus, we managed to get very good photos of not only a really rare and hard-to-see bird in the North Atlantic, but one that is hard to photograph anywhere. This was the day before Tropical Storm Danny was to hit our area.
The double-crested cormorant population has been growing in leaps and bounds. No one is really sure why this hardy and widespread species is undergoing such a population explosion, and theories vary widely. However, there is no disagreement that they are expanding in number at an alarming rate.
Cormorants are not the kind of bird that inspires many fans. Unlike bluebirds or chickadees, there are no clubs or state bird status for cormorants. They are not glamorous. They are not well liked by most fisherman or dock owners. Extraordinarily adaptable, they are successful at capturing a wide range of fish, both large and small, and in both fresh and salt water.
As recently as five years ago when one saw a flock of birds hovering over the water, either terns or small gulls, it would be indicative of a school of large game fish driving small fish to the surface. The small fish would be attempting to escape the threat from the big fish by getting "lost" in the surface clutter of waves and wind action, confusing the big fish. This gave the flying birds a great opportunity to seize the fleeing small fish at the surface.
More recently and increasingly, this sight no longer suggests the same thing. In recent weeks large assemblages of small gulls, primarily laughing and ring-billed with a smattering of young herring gulls thrown in, have been seen feeding in a frenzied fashion over various sections of Sengekontacket Pond in Oak Bluffs. The gulls were sometimes numbering upwards of 500 individuals and indeed looked like "smoke on the water."
The cormorants have learned that by fishing cooperatively they can herd schooling fish in shallow water and trap them along a shoreline or sandbar. Over 1,000 individual cormorants have been counted gathering to form a line, which serves as a kind of net, across the pond. They then swim in formation across the expanse of water, corralling fish against a barrier, usually the shoreline. The fish are then trapped and the cormorants move in to slaughter the baitfish.
The small fish attempt to break out by jumping over the submerged cormorants, thus becoming vulnerable to attacks from above by huge flocks of gulls and terns. The cormorants are driving schools of sand eels, silverside minnows, herring, mackerel or even creek chubs. This fascinating and exciting occurrence goes on daily in Sengekontacket Pond. Early morning has been so full of action on the pond that it really makes a nice trip to go down Beach Road, catch the sunrise, then turn and check out the ferocious feeding activity occurring under, on, and over the pond.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky.