Birds : An awesome Columbus Day Weekend
Columbus Day marks a watershed for birding on the Vineyard. The season shifts dramatically from a couple of short weeks ago and the coming of winter is foretold by the bird species arriving and passing by Island shores. Seed-eating land birds and prodigious quantities of loons, grebes, waterfowl, and gulls are the featured and upcoming attraction, while moderate numbers of raptors and late-moving, lingering, and vagrant insectivores are anticipated.
The Vineyard in mid-October is such a fantastic place to be, especially for those of us enamored of birds, that anywhere else in New England is a distant second. The Gay Head cliffs are a paradise for birders, as the volume and variety of the bird migration is mind-boggling. With the voice of experience, local knowledge, and familiarity with other areas, I say it is the truth.
Locals have little to compare it to and don't realize how exceptional the birding is, and visiting birders are so overwhelmed at the number and variety of birds that they are blown away. There is nothing to compare it to except the spectacular flights at Cape May, N.J.
The difference being that at Cape May, the flight of birds is larger, the number of observers is by an order of magnitude of at least 100 times greater, and the birds are spread over a much larger area. Scenically, there is no comparison. The unspoiled, rural character of the cliffs, so unique, elevating one so that the visibility is unlimited as opposed to the over developmentally challenged and much larger area that is Cape May County. It is a completely different experience and from this writer's perspective, as well as many other observers, not comparable.
Part of the cliffs attraction is its inaccessibility. People from away, observers that have never been to the Island, have no concept of how easy to reach this awesome spot really is. This is another of its many charms.
With westerly winds, this past week was fabulous for birding at the west end of the Island. The movement of falcons all weekend long was strong and steady. Bob Shriber, seasonal Aquinnah resident, spent the weekend with a movie camera filming peregrine falcons flying about over the cliffs. He reports observing some 20 individual peregrines each day last weekend.
Moderate numbers of land birds including red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, cedar waxwings, American goldfinches, house finches, purple finches, yellow-rumped warblers, palm warblers, yellow-shafted flickers, and tree swallows were also noted. A few more unusual species seen this past weekend included a black-throated blue warbler, dickcissel, a smattering of sparrows including several white-throated, white-crowned and swamp sparrows, and several Baltimore orioles.
During the past week the Island was rocking with migrants. Many nights were ideal for migration with clear skies and light northwesterly winds essentially opening the road for nocturnal land bird migrants. Places that normally have few or no birds were loaded with migrant birds. Most impressive were numbers of warblers, vireos, orioles, and sparrows. The small Midwestern ranging clay-colored sparrow was reported no fewer than four times from three different places. This formerly rare species has been increasing annually and now is becoming an almost expected species at migration hotspots.
Several places were absolutely berserk with birds all last week, including the Abel's Hill Cemetery in Chilmark, the Quansoo area of Chilmark, Pond View Farm in West Tisbury, several spots south of the State Forest in West Tisbury, and a handful of places in Edgartown. Mixed flocks of eastern bluebirds, pine warblers, palm warblers, more than 15 species of other warbler species in small numbers, Baltimore orioles, huge numbers of chipping sparrows and savannah sparrows, lesser numbers of song and swamp sparrows as well as good numbers of eastern phoebes were found on a daily basis. Lots of woodpeckers, both species of kinglet, numbers of red-breasted nuthatches, lots of purple finches, a few eastern meadowlarks, small numbers of American pipits, and a few brown creepers were also found every day.
That most often joked about bird name, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, really does belong to a living bird - a medium-sized woodpecker that breeds across much of northern North America but not on the Cape or Islands. They are well named as they drill holes in fruit, willow, and pine trees in a way that encourages them to ooze sap.
The birds then return periodically during the day to eat the insects attracted to the sap flow as well as drinking the sugar rich sap. In the fall migration they are regular but usually scarce on the Island. Last week, from October 6 through 11, at least 10 individual yellow-bellied sapsuckers were found from the Gay Head cliffs in Aquinnah to the Abel's Hill Cemetery in Chilmark.
The shorebird migration has slowed to a crawl. A few American woodcock and Wilson's snipe can be seen during the early morning or evening twilight as they move from feeding to roosting areas. Merlins and peregrine falcons continue to be regular and are frequently seen as they proceed on their respective southbound migrations. Things will start to slow down but are by no means over from the migration standpoint. In fact, the latter half of October often brings the most unexpected vagrant birds of the year.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky.