The Vineyard’s familiar terns have left and headed south. The smallest, the least tern, is the first to go in early September. The common and roseate follow later in the month. Their cousins the black terns usually are around into late September but the Forster’s terns are the Vineyard’s terns of the fall and early winter.

Named in 1834 in honor of Johann R. Forster, a German naturalist, the Forster’s tern is very pale gray above and stark white below but, when we see them, they are usually in their winter plumage. The first winter birds have what looks like a dirty head with a strong black patch through its eye. The adult in its winter finery shows a white head with the black eye patch. Both have forked tails.

The Forster’s tern does not nest on the Island, but instead in scattered colonies in the interior of this country and Canada. There are a few scattered reports of Forster’s terns nesting along the eastern seaboard, mainly south of Massachusetts, although one nest was found on Plum Island in the 1990s and others on Long Island. The Forster’s terns head for southern California, Baja and Mexico as well as the Gulf Coast and Florida when the food moves from the waters on and around the Vineyard.

Watch for this tern that wears a Lone Ranger mask.

Bird Sightings

Reporting your sightings to the Bird Hotline can be confusing, but don’t give up. It is important to press 1 after my message to get the info to the correct place. I found a few old sightings in an odd place on the hotline, so excuse the tardiness.

Cristy Lane of Aquinnah called on Sept. 10 to report a whippoorwill that she saw sitting on her car at 6:45 a.m. I was unable to reach her to get the details. The same day I received a call from Walter Frey that he spotted an American oystercatcher. The Vineyard oystercatchers often stay around into December.

Al Sgroi’s report from Felix Neck for Sept. 12 included six eastern bluebirds, pine warblers, an American kestrel, and a northern harrier. At Katama he added another northern harrier and a red-tailed hawk. Al also spotted a late staying piping plover at Sengekontacket.

Marianne Thomas was still seeing ruby-throated hummingbirds at her Ocean Heights feeder on Sept. 13. Laurie Walker and Katharine Colon birded Aquinnah also on Sept. 13 and found two great blue herons, a belted kingfisher, a brown thrasher, two merlins, an American kestrel and an immature red-tailed hawk.

Pete Gilmore listened to a screech owl calling at 5 a.m. the mornings of Sept. 11 and 13 at his West Tisbury home. Pete still had a ruby-throated hummingbird around his flowers. On Sept. 14 Pete traveled to Aquinnah and spotted two black scoters off the Cliffs. On Sept. 15 Pete was joined by Eric Reubel and Jami Rubens at Aquinnah. They had a good raptor morning, spotting two merlins, a sharp-shinned hawk and an immature peregrine. The group also had a least flycatcher, two brown thrashers and a redstart. Both bobolinks and cedar waxwings flocks flew over. At Red Beach the crew spotted a green heron and a belted kingfisher.

Luanne Johnson spotted three yellow-rumped warblers on Chappaquiddick on Sept. 14.

Matt Pelikan had a new yard bird at his Oak Bluffs home on Sept. 18 in the form of a northern waterthrush. Matt also helped me solve a mystery crow that Connie and Bob Taylor reported on Sept. 16 in Chilmark. The Taylors described a crow which was all black save two white stripes in its wing. Matt reminded me that American crows frequently have odd colored feathering. Lanny McDowell helped further by sending a photo of an American crow he had photographed at Katama that had white in its wing and tail. It is great to be able to tap into the wealth of ornithological knowledge on the Vineyard!

On Sept. 16 Laurie Walker stood in her Abel’s Hill, Chilmark garage and watched a small flock of birds which included blue-headed and warbling vireos and a field sparrow. While Laurie was enjoying migration at Abel’s Hill, Pete Gilmore, Allan Keith, Lanny McDowell, Flip Harrington and I were birding Aquinnah. Our best birds were two black scoters, a northern gannet, a merlin, an osprey, a ruby-throated hummingbird, eastern wood-pewee, phoebe and kingbird, red-breasted nuthatches, five house wrens, two brown thrashers and one each of rose-breasted and blue grosbeaks.

Allan Keith went to Squibnocket on Sept. 17 and saw three pied-billed grebes, an immature black-crowned night heron, three American wigeon, and yellow and prairie warblers. He also saw a Traill’s flycatcher (which is the name that includes both the willow and alder flycatchers, which are near impossible to tell apart without hearing them sing). I went to Aquinnah and saw an American kestrel an osprey and two belted kingfishers.

On Sept. 18 Flip Harrington and I walked along the west side of Tisbury Great Pond. We found a feeding flock of birds, the best of which were a bay-breasted warbler and a yellow-throated vireo. At Aquinnah on Sept. 19 Flip and I found, among others, a brown thrasher, a house wren and a Cooper’s hawk. Later in the day we circumnavigated Quitsa and Menemsha Ponds and found three belted kingfishers, a spotted sandpiper, two ruddy turnstones, one common eider, three turkey vultures and a great egret. Allan Keith counted a flock of over 2,000 blackbirds on Old County Road. Most of them, Allan noted, were red-winged blackbirds; a few were common grackles.

Tara Whiting saw a bird high in the sky over her house in West Tisbury; she got her binoculars and saw the distinctive shape and white wing marks of a common nighthawk on Sept. 19.

Dick Jennings sent me a nice photo of an immature red-tailed hawk that he took in the cedars on Chappaquiddick and also of a red-eyed vireo that had blow onto the beach at Wasque. He added that the tricolored heron is still in the marshes of Poucha Pond as of Sept. 21 and there are at least three merlins hunting Wasque and Cape Pogue. Both Dick and Rob Bierregaard mentioned that Penelope, the Vineyard’s osprey is hanging around a river in the Dominican Republic. She is definitely a river rat!

Tim and Sheila Baird announced that the red-breasted nuthatches have arrived at their Edgartown feeder on Sept. 16. Jules Ben David’s red-breasted nuthatches graced his feeder on the following day. Jules also mentioned that on Sept. 19 a hairy woodpecker visited his Oak Bluffs yard, the first one in several years. Tim and Sheila report that Sept. 20 was the last day they saw their ruby-throated hummingbirds and gray catbirds in their Edgartown yard. The same day they spotted a Cooper’s hawk and on Sept. 17 and 18 they spotted two different American kestrels.

Chris Rimmer was visiting the Island and staying in Edgartown. He spotted Bonaparte’s gulls in Eel Pond and a rusty blackbird at Mytoi on Chappaquiddick on Sept. 20 and 21.

Lanny McDowell nearly was blown off Norton Point on Sept. 20, but he was able to see and photograph Forster’s terns, two pectoral sandpipers and four sets of golden plovers. He was hoping to find a European or Pacific golden plover. He studied the photos at home and found that the birds were immature American golden plovers as they had grey underwings, not the white of the European golden plovers and had the long, not short, wing lengths of the Pacific golden plovers. It is always good to check, as one never knows what will turn up next on this Island!

Pete Gilmore counted 500 tree swallows, a sharp-shinned hawk and a turkey vulture at Aquinnah on Sept. 20. Marianne Thomas had four red-breasted nuthatches show up at her Ocean Heights feeder and mentioned that she had been seeing a hairy woodpecker on and off all summer. Marianne’s son, Tim Thomas, spotted the immature bald eagle and two turkey vultures at Katama on Sept. 20.

Flip Harrington spotted a Forster’s tern on Tisbury Great Pond on Sept. 20 and Flip and I spotted five Forster’s terns and two eastern bluebirds on the 21st over Tisbury Great Pond.


Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-627-4922 or e-mail to

Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her Web site is