The summer is racing to an end. The Agricultural Fair is this weekend, the Chilmark Community Center programs end on Friday the 16th (although I will lead their last of the season bird walk on August 20), and people are beginning to return to their homes after their summer vacations. And along with all of this, the birding is changing. Large numbers of shorebirds are being found on the flats of the South Shore and along a few of the harbors and Great Ponds. Yellow warblers are disappearing, headed for their winter haunts in the south. Hawks are beginning to move through the Island to points south, and barn swallows are disappearing as their cousins, the tree swallows, start to gather into flocks to afford them the “safety in numbers” as they migrate south.
Great blue herons have always, in my mind, signaled the beginning of fall migration. They usually show up in twos and threes on Big Sandy in Tisbury Great Pond the weekend of the fair. The great blue herons have finished raising their young in western Massachusetts and points north and are beginning the post-breeding dispersal that will eventually lead them to Florida, the West Indies and Central America. Unlike our human visitors who need to catch boats or planes, these herons come and leave without reservations. They are, much the same as our visitors, looking for good food and a nice environment in which to relax and feed before going “home” for the winter. Many of the great blues, as we call them, hang around until well into the fall if the feed and weather are good.
Great and snowy egrets join the great blue herons along the shorelines around the Vineyard in the late summer and fall. Snowy egrets used to nest on the Island but were wiped out by a combination of skunk, raccoon and feral cat predation. There are snowy egrets nesting on Noman’s Land, Penikese and the Weepeckets, all of which are predator-free islands. Migrating snowy egrets start arriving now. Great egrets nest on the mainland and I am sure they are probably nesting on Chappaquiddick and perhaps on the Vineyard, but no nests have been verified. The great egrets are around most of the summer but increase in number as August comes to a close. These egrets remind me of the fishermen that visit the Island. Some come during the summer but many more come in the fall for the Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. The numbers of both these “fishermen” depend on the fish available around our shores, harbors and bays.
The large numbers of shorebirds found on the Vineyard’s flats at this time of year remind me of the students and young adults that have worked hard all summer and now are taking a break before returning to their colleges and universities. They hit the beaches to enjoy the last vestiges of summer before heading off-Island. Similarly the shorebirds are looking for a good environment in which to “tank up” on food before they migrate south; the students for a place to relax and enjoy themselves after working hard all summer before they hit the books again.
So whomever you are, enjoy the end of summer and keep your eyes open for migrating shorebirds, long-legged waders, herons, hawks and warblers.
Lanny McDowell, Pete Gilmore, Warren Woessner and I birded Norton Point on Friday, August 9. Lanny took some great photographs of feeding black skimmers. We found one single black tern in with mostly common and roseate terns, but only eight least terns. We had large numbers of semipalmated plovers and sanderlings with small numbers of semipalmated sandpipers and a few least sandpipers. We had two red knots, 12 ruddy turnstones, nine greater yellowlegs, four eastern willets and one western willet. The northern harrier family is still by the Mattakesett condominiums; one adult and two juveniles. We counted 19 laughing gulls and seven ring-billed gulls.
Rob Culbert noted the total lack of least terns at Little Beach on August 10. He did have both common and roseates and many of the same species of shorebirds we spotted on Norton Point.
On August 11, Chris Daley spotted an immature northern harrier in Aquinnah near Philbin Beach and the next day at Zach’s Cliffs he spotted ruddy turnstones, semipalmated plovers, a willet and four American oystercatchers. Off Moshup’s Trail on Noman’s Hill, Chris added white-breasted nuthatches and American goldfinches which were busy picking apart thistle down for nests and seeds.
Charlie Kernick and Ken Magnuson both took nice photographs of greater yellowlegs and great blue herons at Sengekontacket Pond on August 11. Earlier in the week Ken photographed a young eastern willet on Sarson’s Island.
Sarah Mayhew sent me a marvelous photo of the head of a ring-billed gull that she took at Quansoo on August 12. The same day, Jeff Bernier photographed juvenile Cooper’s hawks that were flying around his Edgartown home.
Tim Simmons and his son Ethan paddled out to the barrier at Tisbury Great Pond on August 12. There were small flocks of the usual shorebirds moving through and foraging and a single Hudsonian godwit. Suddenly all the sanderlings, semipalmated and least sandpipers and both least and common terns coalesced into one large flock that began these spectacular synchronized evasion flights, then collectively mobbed a kestrel. They watched the kestrel try unsuccessfully four times to single out a bird. The multi-species mob followed the kestrel out a few hundred yards then returned to forage in small flocks again. There were a few oystercatchers and willets but they did not participate and when Tim and Ethan looked to see where the godwit was, it, too, was gone — interesting example of safety in numbers.
Flip Harrington spotted a greater shearwater on August 11 off Gay Head. He also spotted two black-crowned night herons near Lucy Vincent on August 10. Flip and I spotted four great blue herons and a great egret around Big Sandy on August 12.
I took the Chilmark Community Center birders to Great Rock Bight on August 13. It was a gray day and there wasn’t much action but we all had great looks at male American redstarts. Off the beach we spotted laughing, ring-billed and great black-backed gulls and common terns. We also spotted a food exchange between an adult and juvenile eastern wood pewee. The most common bird by far was the gray catbird!