T. S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” and he was right about the first part of April if you are a birder. In short, lots of winter birds have begun to leave or have left, and few of our summer residents have arrived. In part, the slow arrival of many breeding species has to do with the ocean. Its water is still colder than the land, in the low 40s. Thus any breeze flowing over it drops the temperature on the Island, whereas 40 miles inland the first leaves are beginning to come out in sheltered spots. Out here there are frost bottoms in the state forest where leaves do not appear until mid-June, and occasionally some rhododendrons are still in bloom for the Fourth of July.
No leaves, no insects. So many songbirds that depend largely or in part on insects find little to eat when they arrive in much of April and there is little foliage in which to conceal nests. So they move on. Only late migrants which show up here in May are likely to find conditions favorable for breeding. I suspect this is one reason why it took so long for us to get a nesting population of indigo buntings, which only began to nest here for the first time within the past 10 years. The same appears to be true for rose-breasted grosbeaks, which were first proved nesting at a location off Tea Lane several years ago. There has been a small population in that area for the past couple of years, and Rob Culbert found a possible breeding bird in the state forest for the first time last year. So they may be spreading.
A couple of species that seem likely new breeders here are black-throated green warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, white-eyed vireo, common nighthawk and broad-winged hawk. We used to have a few black-throated green warblers until Hurricane Bob in 1991 destroyed the only known colony on Highmark Hill. Conditions are fine for the other species if some late migrants would stay to nest. Last year Rob Culbert found a broad-wing in the state forest a couple of times in summer, so its chances may be improving.
A more positive feature to April is the possibility of “migration-overshoot” species. Songbirds migrating across the Gulf of Mexico often get caught up in weather systems that carry them farther north than their usual breeding ranges. Nearly every spring species such as summer tanager, prothonotary warbler, yellow-throated warbler and blue grosbeak, in addition to indigo bunting and rose-breasted grosbeak, turn up here after warm and strong southwest winds. This is just the time to be looking for these birds, which are as likely to turn up at feeders as anywhere. Be sure to call the hotline at 508-645-2913 if you are lucky enough to host one at your feeder. On rare occasions more unusual species have also appeared such as Kentucky warbler, painted bunting and worm-eating warbler. In those cases, do not walk, run to your phone and call me.
A few summer birds are trickling in. Eloise Boales was visited by an indigo bunting in Aquinnah on April 4, and Gus Ben David watched a female parula warbler at his suet April 6. He must be doing something right — in 2009 one came there as early as March 30! My first tree swallows were at the Head of the Lagoon March 26, and the first barn swallow was in Chilmark on March 30. At least 10 pairs of ospreys are scattered around the Island now; Happy Spongberg saw four at once at Sepiessa on April 8.
Pine warblers have arrived. Rob Culbert reports several in Oak Bluffs and the state forest. Lanny McDowell found an early prairie warbler near Fulling Mill Brook Preserve on April 10 and five species of woodpeckers at Waskosim’s Rock Reservation on April 12, including a yellow-bellied sapsucker. The large acreage of dead trees due to the caterpillar infestations a few years ago at Waskosim’s Rock Reservation and along the ridge in the Woods property to the east bodes well for woodpecker numbers in future years. Seldom has there been so much favorable habitat for this group of birds.
There was a respectable flight of red-breasted nuthatches last fall and reasonable numbers wintered. Several people have reported that these pleasant birds are still at their feeders, and some will surely remain to breed as they have in the past. Laurie Walker found a brown creeper at her home on Abel’s Hill on April 11. Three male purple martins joined the swallow flock at my home April 7 to 9. Roy Riley saw a Baltimore oriole in Vineyard Haven on April 12.
In the waterfowl department, many of the commoner winter ducks have started to thin out as many migrate north. Numbers of common goldeneyes, common eiders and all three species of scoters have dropped in the last two weeks. The flock of greater scaup that spent the winter in Katama Bay has left. The brant flock at Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs was down to eight on March 30 from 70 earlier in March. However, good numbers of red-throated loons are in offshore waters as they arrive here from points farther south. And the numbers of harlequin ducks at Squibnocket remain in the 20s; in some years an occasional one has remained for the summer. A new arrival was three blue-winged teal off the Squibnocket parking lot on April 9. As a postscript to the common teal report earlier, this spring has witnessed the largest influx of this Eurasian species in recent memory. At least six have appeared along the Atlantic coast from Virginia to New England in the last two weeks of March. As of April 12 it was still at the pond at my home.
Allan Keith is a naturalist living in Chilmark. He and Steve Spongberg are coauthors of Island Life: a Catalogue of the Biodiversity on and around Martha’s Vineyard, the most complete description of the Vineyard’s wildlife to date, available at most book outlets.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.