The magic of migration is happening. The honking of Canada geese pierces the silence and peace and quiet of dawn. Our birdbath has new visitors that we haven’t spotted since last fall, and avid Vineyard birders are waking before sunup to migrate to Aquinnah or Gay Head.
Following birders in the fall can be an exhausting experience. Our first stop is the Gay Head overlook to watch birds headed offshore, or trying to do so and being defeated by the wind, just to return to land. Next we head down to the Vanderhoop Homestead, now the Aquinnah Cultural Center, where the old pitch and black pine snags provide perches for migrants that have flown down along the South Shore. The privet hedge next to the center is a perfect place for small migrant passerines to hide from raptors that are hunting. The bushes around the beach parking lot provide more habitats for warblers, sparrows and finches to duck in when threatened or to feed. How about the mowed “bowl” we drive around to arrive and depart from the Cliffs? Is there a migrating killdeer or Eastern meadowlark feeding on the short grass? Then we walk over to what used to be a great “bucket” below the condominiums and the Gay Head Light, another great retreat for passerines to avoid becoming a raptor’s meal. To finish the loop we venture up to the field around the Light and check the fences for migrants and check offshore one more time.
Red Beach at Lobsterville is the next stop. The old oyster rafts can be a perching area for migratory shorebirds as well as gulls. The flats are feeding areas for these same sandpipers. Menemsha Pond can host migratory waterfowl, and overhead can be streams of swallows and perhaps a hawk or two. Driving up to West Basin can produce migratory long-legged waders, herons and bitterns. Yes, migrants come in all shapes and sizes.
Now down-Island we go to check the fields at the Farm Institute in Katama for bobolinks, plovers and sandpipers in hopes of finding a rarity. Hawks can be seen hunting these fields and swallows also flood over the fields. The tides are important, so when the time is right we purchase our stickers and climb into four-wheel drive vehicles and head out toward the breach on the beach of Norton Point. The flats in Katama Bay, as with all the South Shore beaches, can produce fabulous shorebirds which are stopping to “fuel up” before their incredible flights to Latin America where they will spend their winter months.
If there is any daylight left, we might head to the woods. Perhaps a walk on one of the trails at Waskosim’s Rock, Great Rock Bight or Sepiessa will provide us with a mixed flock: a group of migrating birds made up of warblers, flycatchers, woodpeckers, sparrows and vireos. This is where many eyes make light work. The feeding birds are all around you and so we have to choose different sectors to watch. When a special feathered friend is spotted we all swing our binoculars around and look in that direction.
Finally, if we have an ounce of energy left, we head to the State Forest to listen for migrating owls or perhaps a common nighthawk flying over. We collapse after marking our checklists with what we had seen and hit the hay early so we can get up and start again the next morning. There are new birds coming through daily.
The fall migration of birds through Martha’s Vineyard is spectacular; a great way to further your knowledge about birds, and meet new people.
Dick Jennings and Rob Bierregaard sent me the final inventory of the Vineyard’s osprey nests. As of the end of August the team had counted 67 active nests. The crew also discovered nine housekeeping pairs.
Nineteen of these nests failed to produce young, two due to raccoon predation, three failures with no explanation, and 14 due to the June 21, 22 and 23 nor’easter. The good news is that the Vineyard fledged 87 young osprey this year despite the foul June weather and wasn’t far behind last year’s totals with 70 nests, five housekeepers who fledged 122.
The census-taking of Vineyard osprey began 12 years ago and this year, even with the failures, the Island nests produced enough young ospreys so we are still slightly above average when we compare the average number of young per active nest. This year’s losses due to the nor’easter caused a 22 per cent failure rate, which was a bit above average, but the good fishing seemed to help those that made it through the storm.
Rob, Dick and crew tagged four young on the Vineyard. Their names, should you decide to follow their migratory travels are: Isabel from Tashmoo, Moffett from Felix Neck, Caley at Caleb’s Pond and Bea on Cape Pogue. Moffett was the first to leave the Island. Check the movement of Vineyard ospreys online at bioweb.uncc.edu/bierregaard.
Warren Woessner watched 11 turkey vultures migrating south over Menemsha Basin on August 26. The same day Claire Guesualdo called to report that a hawk had hit her Chappaquiddick house window. The bird was stunned. Gus Ben David guessed that the bird in question was a Cooper’s hawk.
August 27 Lanny McDowell and I went to Aquinnah and saw an olive-sided flycatcher on one of the dead pines by the Aquinnah Cultural Center. This is an irregular fall visitor; this was only the third time that I had seen this flycatcher on the Island. A flock of bobolinks was the only other notable sighting. Later the same day Warren and Iris Woessner went to Gay Head to find the olive-sided flycatcher, which they found in the company of eastern phoebes and kingbirds. They had a bonus bird which was a purple finch. Whit Manter spotted one buff-breasted and two white-rumped sandpipers at Quansoo Beach on August 28.
August 31 Pete Gilmore, Allan Keith, Lanny McDowell, Warren Woessner and I birded Gay Head and Black Point Pond. We saw 56 species of birds, the highlights being ten blue-winged teal, a whimbrel, 12 white-rumped sandpipers, two black terns, four osprey, Cooper’s hawk, greater and lesser yellowlegs, eastern willet and a flock of bobolinks. While we were up-Island, Winnie and Fred Spar spotted a pectoral sandpiper and a red knot at Norton Point.
Allan Keith, Lanny McDowell and Warren Woessner went to Norton Point on Sept. 1 and found a red knot, two willets, five short-billed dowitchers, five American oystercatchers, and one Cooper’s hawk. Winnie and Fred Spar added a great egret and the American avocet.
Earlier on Sept. 1 Allan Keith birded Gay Head, spotting 750 laughing gulls off the head and 500 at Red Beach in Lobsterville. At the Cliffs, Allan spotted two Baltimore orioles, four prairie warblers, eight yellowthroats and three blue-gray gnatcatchers as well as a flock of bobolinks and cedar waxwings.
Eleanor Waldron also spotted a large flock of cedar waxwings in the cherry tree on Brandybrow in West Tisbury.
Susie Bowman watched a merlin flying over the fairgrounds on Sept. 1.
Both Gus Ben David and I have watched huge flocks of common grackles mixed with red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds moving over the Island this week.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-627-4922 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.