It was like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds. Trudy Taylor called and Bob Shriber e-mailed me to describe the scene that occurred on Saturday, Sept. 5. Hundreds of laughing gulls were flying overhead along the Lobsterville Beach. They were acting like swallows, swooping down and up, combing the air for insects. It turns out that the gulls were catching flying ants that had hatched from the beach and dunes.
Hugh Taylor remembers that when he and Jeannie were around the Dogfish “Bar and Grill,” every season about the same time there was a hatch of flying ants. It was then that the Taylors spotted laughing gulls. During the summer months laughing gulls breed, and do so elsewhere further east. As a result very few of these small black-headed gulls are seen around the Vineyard during their nesting season. Then in the fall, as if by magic, the laughing gulls appear in numbers.
Laughing gulls migrate and commence to do so in August, with the largest movements in September and October. No doubt the flock that Trudy and Bob spotted were tanking up on food before they headed south. These birds tend to be the adults and, as with the shorebirds, the young of the year migrate later. We have counted over 600 laughing gulls in Menemsha Pond as late as December. These were the young of the year.
Known as opportunistic feeders, the laughing gull’s diet is varied and depends upon where they are. Along the coast they survive on small fish and crustaceans. Inland they will eat earthworms, snails, garbage and flying insects. They have been known to eat the eggs of other birds and are famous for eating horseshoe crab eggs in Delaware Bay at the same time the red knots are migrating. My favorite feeding behavior of the laughing gull is seen in Florida, where laughing gulls land on a brown pelican’s head and grab fish from the pelican’s gular pouch. Talk about a free lunch!
Bob Shriber estimated that there were close to 700 laughing gulls at Lobsterville on Sept. 5 feeding on the flying ants, and the food fest was over in only 15 minutes. The ants disappeared and so did the gulls.
On August 31 Susie Bowman spotted two killdeer at the Agricultural Hall fields.
On Sept. 2 Susan Strang spotted a Caspian tern on the flats at Black Point Pond.
On Sept. 3 Fred and Winnie Spar and Abbott Miller spotted an immature black-crowned night heron, American avocet, two pectoral sandpipers and both greater and lesser yellowlegs on the Katama flats. Fred and Winnie spotted the American avocet again on Sept. 6 and the last time this shorebird had been seen was Sept. 7 by Tim Rodenkirk, again at Katama.
Flip Harrington and I took Luanne Johnson, Lanny McDowell, Pete Gilmore and Allan Keith to the Tisbury Great Pond opening and Short and Tiah’s Coves. Our best bird was a Hudsonian godwit. Other birds of note were four piping plovers, a pectoral sandpiper, an immature little blue heron, white-winged scoters and a belted kingfisher.
Sept. 4 Al Gatti joined me at Gay Head and we had a slow morning. We did however count five great egrets at Lobsterville. On the Katama flats Tim Rodenkirk picked out a Bonaparte’s gull amongst the flock of laughing gulls. Larry Hepler noted that there were still blue-winged teal in Black Point Pond and that there were several willets, some smaller than the others.
Sept. 5 Allan Keith and I went to Black Point to check out the willets Larry Hepler had reported. There were four total, two were western willets and two were eastern willets. The western were larger and lighter than the darker and smaller eastern models. Eventually these two will be split into two species. We also spotted both species of yellowlegs, American oystercatchers, piping plovers and short-billed dowitchers. Later in the day Flip Harrington and I went around Tisbury Great Pond and picked up both Hudsonian and marbled godwits and a pectoral sandpiper.
The same day Lanny McDowell and Pete Gilmore spotted six whimbrels and bobolinks at the Farm Institute at Katama. Later in the day Pete had a merlin buzz his car when he was at the Gay Head Cliffs dropping off a friend. Later Pete was at Lambert’s Cove beach where he spotted one of the osprey Rob Bierregaard fitted with a transmitter and antenna flying all around the area. He also spotted two white-winged scoters.
While we were elsewhere Tim Rodenkirk was finding some good birds at Gay Head including several prairie, a black and white and two male blue-winged warblers, an American redstart, an eastern wood pewee, several red-eyed vireos, a Baltimore oriole and flying over were bobolinks and dickcissels. Later in the day at Katama Tim spotted 10 salt marsh sparrows (formerly salt marsh sharp-tailed sparrows).
Sept. 6 Bob Shriber was at the Gay Head Cliffs. He spotted bobolinks and cedar waxwings flying overhead and at Herring Creek Farm he spotted four whimbrel and two golden plovers in a flock of black-bellied plovers.
Sept. 7 Bob Shriber and Tim Rodenkirk spotted a peregrine falcon, a sharp-shinned and a Cooper’s hawk at Lobsterville. Later, Tim spotted a red knot, an immature golden plover and the American avocet in Katama. At Cracktuxet Cove, he and his wife spotted around 10,000 tree swallows.
Anne Lemenager was driving on East Chop and noticed crows on a roadkill rabbit. The crows suddenly left and a Cooper’s hawk swooped down in front of her car, landed on the rabbit, snagged a bite and landed in a tree ten feet from the car.
Sept. 8 Anne and Molly Mattoon watched a belted kingfisher fishing in Sengekontacket Pond from the eighth hole at Farm Neck.
Tim Rodenkirk spotted Wilson’s and palm warblers, yellow-throated vireos and merlins at Gay Head on Sept. 8.
Lanny McDowell, Pete Gilmore and I were greeted the morning of Sept. 9 by a merlin coming up the Gay Head cliffs and eyeballing us as we stood at the overlook. Nothing much more was seen except bobolinks and cedar waxwings, and they heard dickcissels.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-627-4922 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.