Gus Ben David, of the World of Reptiles and Birds, and I have received a few calls or e-mails about ailing sea birds and shorebirds. Deb Hancock called and described a very lethargic ruddy turnstone she spotted on Lobsterville Beach. The bird could be picked up and showed no sign of concern when she approached. Deb also noticed a common loon that was up on the beach and showed very little fear when approached, except to snap its bill. This is unusual because loons are not designed to go on land; it typically indicates that a bird is weak or ill.

In Tisbury, in the lagoon, Vasha Brunelle reports that a first-year common loon is hauled out on the beach and ailing. Gus Ben David has had reports of ailing common eiders off the Vineyard’s beaches.

So what is going on? I checked with Kesten Smith, who works at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). He recently returned from a WHOI cruise that was taking samples in the Gulf of Maine, where there has been a red tide that affects shellfish. I asked him if the toxin in this red tide affected birds as well. He directed me to Kate Hubbard, and after a nice chat with her and then Gus Ben David, we came to the following possible conclusions as to why we’ve found a few ailing birds around the Vineyard. One is that the birds had been in contact with food in the Gulf of Maine, in the red tide area, and then flew to the Vineyard. Two, the sickly birds might have the influenza or flu that killed so many seals last fall. Or three, this is just the normal death of young or weak individuals which occurs yearly. There is no need to panic.

We would like it if people who find dead birds would collect them and then call Gus Ben David at 508-627-5634. When collecting carcasses, use a plastic bag to pick up the bird, then seal the bird inside the bag. There is no known threat to humans, but it is best to be careful. Gus will freeze the corpses and send them to Tufts University, where a team of veterinarians will analyze the birds and report back as to the causes of death. Videos of ailing birds also would be helpful to the scientists at Woods Hole.

Kate Hubbard noted that if anyone sees birds having what looks like a seizure, they should call Gus or the Bird Hotline (508-645-2913).

Bird Sightings

The black skimmers have successfully fledged! Jeff Bernier photographed several young skimmers in flight, some alone and others with their parents practicing skimming for food on July 6. This is a first for the Vineyard and of note for all of Massachusetts.

On August 3, Warren Woessner, Lynn Fagan and I birded Norton Point and found six skimmers in with common and roseate terns. Warren and Lynn spotted a Forster’s tern as well. Jeff Bernier took excellent photos of both adult and juvenile common and roseate terns, which showed the crucial field marks to differentiate between the two tern species three days later.

Shorebirds are the main focus this time of year. Luanne Johnson, Liz Baldwin and Lanny McDowell joined Flip Harrington and me birding Tisbury Great Pond on August 4. Our best birds were white-rumped sandpipers, a single royal tern and a single black tern. There were scads of peeps and it is always a learning experience to identify them all.

On August 5, Jeff Bernier photographed a juvenile spotted sandpiper. Natalie Woodruff photographed three stilt sandpipers in the marshes of Sengekontacket Pond on August 6. It is unusual to see that many stilt sandpipers on the Vineyard; we usually only see one at a time.

The Chilmark Community Center birders, including the three Woessner brothers, Warren, William and Walter, and wife Karen joined me on August 7 at Tisbury Great Pond, where we spotted 13 species of shorebirds. The highlight of the morning was seeing a pectoral sandpiper land on a small island inhabited by sanderlings, pause for a few seconds, fly to the shore, preen, then then take off flying southwest. We also counted six white-rumped sandpipers in with the huge flock of semipalmated plovers and sandpipers. Unfortunately, we found only one piping plover chick with its parent.

Also on August 7, at the other end of the Island, Bill Lee spotted two short-billed dowitchers, one greater and one lesser yellowlegs, one willet, one each semipalmated and black-bellied plover, and two American oystercatchers on Sarson’s Island.

Vasha and Frank Brunelle spotted two immature green herons on the Island off the Salt Water Café in the lagoon in Tisbury on August 7. The same day, Ken Magnuson photographed two immature yellow-crowned night herons at Wintucket Cove off Edgartown Great Pond. He also saw spotted sandpipers and belted kingfishers. Lanny McDowell photographed an adult yellow-crowned night-heron at Eel Pond on August 8.

Gus Ben David spotted a chimney swift flying over the World of Reptiles and Birds on August 8.

Interesting news about bobwhites: Wendy Weldon found a nest of bobwhites near her home in the Chilmark Hills. Sadly, when she went back to check on their progress, the nest was gone — ravaged by a skunk, feral cat or raccoon. On a happier note, Daisy Von Furth has heard bobwhites in Blacksmith Valley and saw one in late July. Bill Lee had two bobwhites calling near his Greenhouse Lane home in Chilmark. These sightings are all within the same general area.

Rob Bierregaard has just finished his osprey banding for the season. Unfortunately, there are no Vineyard ospreys with new satellite transmitters fitted this year. However, you can still track the ospreys that have been fitted in the past on the Vineyard at

Dotty and Don Gonson observed eight turkey vultures on the shore in front of our house on August 8 and were curious as to why they were there. My theory is they were eating the hulls of the bluefish Flip Harrington had cleaned there.


Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail to Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her Web site is: