Identifying songbirds at this time of year can be problematic. On some lucky days, especially after northwest winds, it seems that songbirds are all over the place. But identifying them can be a problem.

Songbirds are noisy in the spring and summer, as they establish and defend territories and attract mates. Now the breeding season is over and they seldom sing, opting instead to make soft chirping noises whose sources are hard to track down.

Many songbirds are active when feeding, so their movement may catch your eye. Once you have found a bird, keep looking at it as you raise your binoculars to your eyes, and, presto, the bird will be visible in your binoculars. Forget about it if you take your eyes off the bird as you are raising your binoculars. You will have to find the bird all over again. Once we finally find the birds in our binoculars, they invariably move so they are hidden behind a leaf or branch or tree trunk.

We may have only a short period to observe enough of the bird to identify it, so we have to know what to look for. Bill shape is one of the most important things to look for, since different groups of birds (thrushes, chickadee, woodpecker, warbler, or finch) each have a characteristic bill shape, which can then be used to find the appropriate section of the bird book. After all, you will not find a bird with a warbler’s beak mixed in with the heavy conical finch beaks.

Other important field marks are shape and posture — horizontal like a catbird or vertical like a flycatcher — the presence or absence of wing-bars, the presence or absence of streaking on the chest and belly, whether it has an eye-line or an eye-ring, and then the presence and location of particular colors — yellow, green, black, white, gray or red.

Dickcissel spotted in Aquinnah. — Lanny McDowell

In an ideal world you observe all those details and write them down before you get out the field guide. This way what you see in the field guide will not change the characteristics of the bird you saw. And if the bird is close enough to you, you can take a picture of it to help you identify it. After all, you will need that photo if you claim to see anything out of the ordinary.

I never said it would be easy, especially at this time of the year when many species are drably-colored. Identifying songbirds takes patience and practice.

Bird Sightings

The bird of the week is the Say’s phoebe spotted by Allan Keith at his Chilmark farm on Sept. 8. This is not our normal phoebe, but rather a migrant from the western part of the country, from somewhere between Alaska and Texas. This is not a common species anywhere east of the Mississippi River. Susan Whiting and Barbara Pesch’s book, Vineyard Birds II, reports that it is a rare vagrant on the Island. This species has the upright posture of all flycatchers, but unlike other flycatchers, it is overall brownish with a solid black tail and an orangy-buffy belly. Lanny McDowell, Ms. Whiting and Ken Magnuson found this bird later that day.

Coincidence or not, Mr. Keith observed a Say’s phoebe at the exact same location on Sept. 14, 2009. These two sightings are probably not the same bird since six years is a long time for a small bird. But how about the only three sightings of a Say’s phoebe on the North Atlantic shoreline this fall? One was seen at Cape Sable Island, at the southern tip of Nova Scotia on Sept. 5 and 6. The next day, one was observed on Esther Island, just off the southwest corner of Nantucket. Then Mr. Keith finds his on Sept. 8. Are all three sightings of the same bird? The flight from Nova Scotia to Nantucket is “only” 320 miles, not an impossible flight for a small migrant, although the entire flight would be over water. More probable is that the Vineyard and Nantucket observations are of the same bird.

Most of the other birding activity takes place in Aquinnah.

Lanny McDowell, Allan Keith, Soo Whiting, Flip Harrington, Ken Magnuson and Pete Gilmore were there on Sept. 8 and found three vireo species (red-eyed, warbling and Philadelphia), four warbler species (common yellowthroat, prairie, American redstart and an early yellow-rumped warbler), as well as bobolinks, merlin and Cooper’s hawk.

On Sept. 12, Gay Head produced a dickcissel that flew by uttering its distinctively buzzy call note, which is sufficient to identify this rare fall transient. Warblers observed include Wilson’s, pine, magnolia, palm, yellow, black-throated green and Nashville. Also seen were two vireos (red-eyed and blue-headed), house wren and eastern kingbird. This day the birders were Mr. Magnuson, Kelly Spenser, Ms. Whiting, Mr. McDowell, Mr. Gilmore and Mr. Keith.

Mr. Magnuson and Ms. Spenser returned to Aquinnah on Sept. 13 and found the following warblers: black-throated green, ovenbird, American redstart, Wilson’s, Cape May, black and white, prairie, common yellowthroat, Nashville, palm and pine. A dickcissel was also observed, but is not necessarily the same bird that was heard the day before.

And then Mr. Gilmore went to Aquinnah on Sept. 14 and added black-throated blue warbler to the list. That makes 15 species of warblers and four species of vireos seen in Aquinnah this week!

You do not have to be in Aquinnah to find birds though. Virginia Jones reported a peregrine falcon that perched on a fence by the Mill Pond in West Tisbury on Sept. 8.

Sarah Mayhew went to Norton Pointon Sept. 9 and found 11 adult black skimmers and three young chicks, 17 American oystercatchers, 50 black-bellied plovers, willets, sanderlings, ruddy turnstone, a northern harrier and a few smaller sandpipers.

On Sept. 11, Nathalie Woodruff observed a large flock of laughing gulls at the southern end of Sengekontacket Pond.

Mr. Keith went to Squibnocket on Sept. 12 and found his first ruby-crowned kinglet of the fall, an eastern wood-pewee, seven phoebes, warbling vireo, red-eyed vireo, yellow-rumped warbler, prairie warbler, American redstart and three black-crowned night-herons.

On Sept. 14, Mr. Gilmore found a flock of six white-winged scoters in the ocean near Squibnocket Beach.

Sioux Eagle reports that her yard was filled with ruby-throated hummingbirds on Sept. 10. That day was stormy, and Sue Hruby found a northern flicker hunkered down in her yard during the worst of the storm.

There are lots of birds around, so please get out looking for them, and be sure to report your bird sightings to

Robert Culbert leads Saturday morning guided birding tours and is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.