Birds : Island waters alive with birds
The end of October heralds major change in the natural world, the birds' world. Powerful weather systems continue to increase in duration and strength accompanied by colder temperatures and decreasing daylight. The signs of the rapidly approaching winter are everywhere. Shocking to realize is that the start of the Christmas Bird Counts are only seven weeks away.
Birds that have waited to migrate are doing so with life-saving purpose. Some of the many reasons that they may have delayed their journey include injury, illness, discovering an abundant food source, and immaturity. Or perhaps they are not the brightest birds and not in possession of a full deck of cards. The reasons are endless.
With days rapidly shortening and ambient temperatures dropping on the land and in the waters, the migration of birds has shifted and most land birds have passed by. Now is the time that northerly nesting loons, grebes, sea ducks, and gulls arrive to spend the winter months off our shores.
This is their tropics, a respite from where they have just left where it will be a frozen inhospitable environment until next May. A look of any favored spot at the water in the early morning will reveal long lines of ducks and scattered numbers of flying loons passing by. There are many excellent, reasonably accessible spots around the Island for viewing large concentrations of sea ducks.
While birding now requires a hat, maybe gloves and an overcoat, it is very rewarding. There are, right now, more and bigger birds on the move than at any other time of the year. The waters surrounding the Island are jammed with birdlife.
Any favorite spot along any Island shoreline will be well worth a visit, especially near dawn, at this time of year. Even going about one's business in any Island town, there are birds to be seen passing by high overhead. It is a rare morning 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.
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 (for birds) and must run, paddle, and flap for a long distance on the water's surface to get airborne. Once flying they look like they are sinking and like 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, ungainly in the air, they must fly fast to stay airborne. This is called having heavy wing loading. When their normal flight speed is augmented with a strong 30 to 40 mile per hour tailwind 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 and fish along the south side of the Vineyard - where there are lots of fish for loons to eat for a few weeks - fatten up and head south to say south Jersey, Cape May, and 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. 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. Whence they round Race Point in Provincetown they are again buffeted by unobstructed fierce northeast winds.
They choose the path of least resistance and make their way across Cape Cod Bay to the east shoreline of Massachusetts and again repeat the process. Liken it to Groundhog Day for seabirds in fierce storms. 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 biggest northeast storms get birders from all around the country moving this way. It is becoming a birding destination in the foulest weather imaginable.
The Vineyard has more over-wintering sea ducks than anywhere else. It makes for fabulous late fall and winter birding. If you have toyed with the idea of a spotting scope to get better looks at distant waterfowl or birds sitting on the water, this would be a good time to look into it.
The birding in area waters will only get better right into the end of November. After strong winds, northern gannets, a wide variety of gulls, a few jaegers (falcon-like seabirds) alcids, and a bonanza of sea ducks in close to shore are all expected highlights. With numbers of migrant land birds thinning, it seems the next few weeks have historically been the best time for vagrant flycatchers to appear.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky.