Birds : Look, listen, and learn
Spring on the Vineyard is not the warm, tranquil, idyllic, season that one might dream about. Instead it is typically short periods of cold weather interspersed with nasty fast-moving frontal systems. Think back to earlier this week! A spring day with raging easterly winds and lots of driving rain can feel just as cold as any day in midwinter.
The effects provided by the cool ocean waters surrounding the Island that make it so nice in the heat of summer keep it much colder at this season than places on the mainland that are just a few miles inland. This temperature lag results in a delay in emergent vegetation that delays the availability of insects.
Hence the Vineyard in the spring migration is an unfriendly place for insectivorous birds. Consequently, evolution has favored living birds of various species that have survived by migrating north in the spring staying inland, away from the dangerous coastline. It is an eye-opening treat for a birder accustomed to Vineyard spring birding to visit the middle of the country in April or early May. The bird migration is staggering in terms of numbers and variety of birds. It is unlike anything that the coastal birder here would ever encounter.
Indeed for birding the Island in spring is a completely different place than in the fall. The spring migration consists of a small fraction of the profusion of birds that visit this outpost during the southern portion of their annual migration, in September and October. Nonetheless, the spring arrival of returning breeding birds, of water birds going around and over the island, and the intensity of the resident birds make this a delightful time of year.
Hotspots in spring
Another anomaly on the Vineyard in spring is the proclivity of microclimates. Well-known to growers of all things but especially to grape growers/wine makers, the cool Vineyard spring has mini hotspots.
Some sheltered and south-facing places can be fully six weeks ahead of the south shore of the Island. Downtown Vineyard Haven, to a lesser extent downtown Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, and many isolated and private homes and yards, have created their own microclimate that flowers and greens up far earlier than surrounding landscapes. These are enormously attractive to migrant birds and therefore the most productive spring birding spots.
Returning breeding birds have been making themselves heard and seen. The king of the Vineyard birding scene in spring, the osprey, has returned, delighting observers young and old, new and experienced. The first look at one of these impressive raptors on a cold March day never fails to deliver shivers that have nothing to do with the temperature.
Ospreys arrived seemingly simultaneously at several locations on the Vineyard. Reports were sluggish and trickled in compared to most years. No doubt the weather delayed the return of some birds, frustrating observers who were anxiously awaiting the Island appearance of these superb fish eagles. But now they're here, and more are on the way.
Killdeer, grassland-loving plovers, have been seen a couple of times of late. Land birds are starting to trickle in and resident birds are getting more vocal daily. The start of the breeding dawn chorus is already taking effect. The calls of many bird species that will be feeding young in late May and June are hard to miss both at dawn and dusk. The plaintive call of the mourning dove, the loud, cheerful rambunctious calls of the Carolina wren, the whistled two-syllable love call of the black-capped chickadee, feee-beee on the same pitch, are all common and widespread noises on the Vineyard at this season.
The spring is time to hone one's ears, reacquainting the sounds birds make with the sounds rattling around in one's head. For beginning birders this is a great time to start looking at birds. Advantages that facilitate learning what birds are what at this season are many. The birds are calling and conspicuous, as leaves are not out. Birds stand out, and even act as if they are insulted if you don't look at them.
The calling birds are defending territories. They really are not going anywhere except to a tree nearby if they get spooked. With a little patience and practice with binoculars, you will soon be identifying with confidence the birds in your neighborhood or yard. Once you identify your first song sparrow, white-breasted nuthatch or American goldfinch, you will start accelerating up the learning curve.
You most likely already know American crow, American robin, blue jay, cardinal and the like. If you start now by the end of May you will be able to identify over 75 species well on your way to becoming familiar with over a third of the species you might see in a lifetime on the Island.
New birds are arriving almost daily, and there may be some surprises mixed in. The recent heavy rains and strong winds will most likely blow some wayward migrants to Vineyard shores. Colorful indigo buntings, summer tanagers and perhaps prothonotary warblers all distinct possibilities after storms in late March and April.
Until next time - keep your eyes to the sky!
Thanks, Vern. The "next time" may be quite some time down the road, it turns out. Vern Laux has decided to step down as the Birds columnist. The Times thanks him heartily for his contributions over the years and wishes him well in future endeavors. For readers who might panic about this being Vern's swan song, cold turkey withdrawal may not be permanent. Vern has agreed to send along occasional submissions in the future, when the spirit and topic move him.