Birding on the Vineyard and elsewhere has changed immensely with the invention of the cell phone and iPad. A good example occurred Oct. 5 in the late morning when Lanny McDowell, Pete Gilmore and Ken Magnuson spotted three Caspian terns on South Beach from the west side of Chilmark Pond. Lanny called me and Pete called Allan Keith and the information of the sighting went on the web. Lanny and Ken were too far away to take photos so they suggested I take my measly point and shoot camera with me when I went to find the terns.
Flip and I went to Hancock Beach at around 2:30 p.m. and walked down to the grass-free beach where the pond had been opened to the sea. There was a mixed flock of birds including herring, laughing, ring-billed and great black-backed gulls, as well as a lone semipalmated plover and two American oystercatchers. In the midst of the flock were two huge terns with electric red bills and a handsome black cap and one with a less red bill and lesser black cap and gray chevrons on its back. The Caspian terns were still there and it appeared to be a family, two adults and one juvenile. Flip and I were able to take several photographs. When we got home we discovered that the terns we had just seen and photographed had headed east and ended up at Edgartown Great Pond where Jeff Bernier was able to photograph them as well.
Caspian terns are not common on the Vineyard. Considered an uncommon transient in Vineyard Birds II, the Caspian terns we all saw on Oct. 5 were right on schedule as this species is most frequently seen during September and October. These birds are moving from their nesting grounds to their winter haunts. There are a few other sightings of this large tern during the late spring and early summer, but the fall is the time we see this species the most.
The largest of the terns, the Caspian tern wanders far and wide and is found on all continents except the Antarctic. There are large breeding colonies in central Canada and around the Great Lakes as well as in Newfoundland. Tern species in general migrate as a family with the young of the year accompanying the adults. This is to ensure the youngster not only has enough to eat but learns to fish on its own.
I made a call to Simon Perkins of NoticeNature Consulting and he remembered that there was a pair seen on an island in Quabbin Reservoir in 2010 most of the summer that might have nested there. The next closest location for Caspian terns to nest, Simon noted, is on islands in Lake Champlain on the Vermont/New York border. So are the three we spotted on the Vineyard from Lake Champlain, Newfoundland, the Great Lakes or nesting areas further north and west? We will never know, but we can enjoy their Vineyard visit.
Bob Cassidy spotted the mystery bird at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport again Oct. 6. He originally called it a swallow-tailed kite. The bird was hunting low over the grassy fields next to the runway, and appeared to be catching insects as it was flying very erratically. Bob apologizes for jumping to conclusions in identifying this raptor, and he hesitated to recant his convictions, but he finally did and realized the hawk he had and was still seeing is a male northern harrier. Thanks, Bob, for being persistent in keying out the identity of the mystery raptor.
Back on Sept. 24 Vern Laux was visiting from Nantucket and was birding at Gay Head. He had a good raptor day seeing sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks and two merlins. His best birds, however, were two juvenile broad-winged hawks, one of which nicely landed so Vern could get a good view.
On Oct. 1 Ken Magnuson spotted and photographed the marbled godwit on the Norton Point on the bay side. Bob Shriber spotted the godwit in about the same area on Oct. 7.
On Oct. 2 I hosted a group who had “won me” at the Hospice Silent Auction. We had a good group and went to Gay Head where our best birds were a northern gannet, a yellow-billed cuckoo, a merlin, a peregrine falcon, three eastern phoebes, three golden-crowned kinglets, a common yellowthroat, a Blackpoll warbler, 10 yellow-rumped warblers and four Baltimore orioles. We met up with Allan Keith, who had been at Gay Head for an hour and half before we arrived. He had heard an Eastern screech owl and seen five house wrens, bay-breasted, prairie and six palm warblers, a white-crowned sparrow, an indigo bunting and ruby-crowned kinglet.
Allan continued on to Squibnocket where he added two pied-billed grebes, a northern parula and Magnolia warblers, and a swamp sparrow. At Menemsha Hills, Allan spotted two hermit thrushes and a red-eyed vireo. The Gay Head Moraine gave Allan a blue-headed vireo and a yellow-bellied sapsucker. At home at Turtle Brook Farm, Allan spotted a Wilson’s Snipe.
At Pilot Hill, Penny Uhlendorf and Scott Stephens heard and spotted three blue-headed vireos.
Flip Harrington and I took a skiff ride around Tisbury Great Pond on Oct. 3 and walked a short distance at Long Point. We counted nine American oystercatchers, one greater yellowlegs, and four black-bellied plovers, one very late-staying piping plover, six white-winged scoters and two lesser black-backed gulls. At Gay Head, Allan Keith spotted an alder/willow flycatcher. These flycatchers are very hard to separate in the fall as it is their voice that usually gives them away, and they don’t call much in the fall. The warblers Allan saw included Tennessee, northern parula, yellow-rumped, palm and Blackpoll. He spotted one dark-eyed junco and swamp and white-throated sparrows, one of which was singing.
At the other end of the Island, Rob Culbert, while conducting an ISS survey, hit the jackpot at Little Beach in Edgartown. He counted 163 black-bellied plovers, four golden plovers, 11 semipalmated plovers, one piping plover, eight American oystercatchers, 18 greater yellowlegs, four lesser yellowlegs, one willet, one red knot, 258 sanderlings, two semipalmated sandpipers, 19 dunlins, a savannah sparrow and a palm warbler.
On Oct. 4 Lanny McDowell, Pete Gilmore and I conducted an ISS survey at Norton Point. We saw few shorebirds, the best being a flock of eight dunlin and nine American oystercatchers, but we did see a merlin, a peregrine falcon and a lesser black-backed gull. We continued over to Chappaquiddick and drove down East Beach to Wasque where we saw only fishermen, 50 sanderlings and three wood ducks in the surf.
On Oct. 5 Ken Magnuson sent photos of swamp sparrows and white-winged scoters he took at Gay Head. The Caspian terns were seen at Chilmark and Edgartown Great Pond. Rob Culbert was at the Oak Bluffs pumping station and found an American kestrel, seven American wigeon, three northern waterthrushes, two red-eyed vireos, a dark-eyed vireo and a great blue heron. Allan Keith at Squibnocket counted 59 green-winged teal, a gadwall, a pied-billed grebe, four greater yellowlegs and a great egret on Chilmark Pond. I took a small group around Long Point on the 5th and our best birds were common loon, black ducks, a single scaup species, black scoters, semipalmated plover, eastern phoebe and many yellow-rumped warblers and a single pine warbler.
At Gay Head they had bobolinks, common yellowthroat, and yellow-rumped warblers. At Little Beach they had an adult and juvenile American oystercatcher. The adult was banded with YH7 and was one of the pair that produced three fledglings this year and have fledged two to three annually, according to Liz Baldwin of Biodiversity Works. On Oct. 8 Bob Shriber and I birded around Aquinnah. Our best birds were six sharp-shinned hawks, two red-bellied woodpeckers, two merlins, two peregrine falcons, a red-eyed vireo, 66 blue jays, a northern parula, five swamp sparrows, one white-throated sparrow, a common grackle and two purple finches.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard bird hotline at 508-645-2913 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Susan B. Whiting is the co-author of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her website is vineyardbirds2.com.