Sleeping is wonderful when there is a chill in the air. So is going to the post office and not being stuck in stop-and-go traffic. The weather is also a wake-up call to birders on the Island. Northerly winds bring birds from their nesting grounds toward their winter haunts. This is an exciting time for birders known as fall migration!
Why do birds migrate? Well, would you like to spend a winter in the Arctic with little daylight, howling winds, ice and snow and no insects to eat, or would you prefer to move south where there are insects and fresh fruits available and warming sunshine?
Originally, ornithologists from the northern parts of the world thought that the reason there were no birds about in the winter months was because birds hibernated. This was proven to be incorrect (except for a cousin of the whip-poor-will the, common poor will, which was discovered in a torpid state among rocky crevices in the Southwest). Now ornithologists, by the use of banding, radar, satellites and observations, have determined that there are seasonal flights of bird species. These scientists also have determined that most species fly south and north at altitudes lower than 4000 feet, although there are exceptions where birds have flown over the Himalayas and Andes.
How do these little creatures, such as the arctic tern, which moves from the Arctic to Antarctica each year, make this journey? What do they use for fuel and do they carry GPS’s? There are still mysteries about migration that have not been solved. We do know that most birds feed before migration. Last week we had visiting red knots feasting on seed clams. These birds can actually almost double their weight prior to migrating. The weight birds pack on prior to their long flights is in the form of fat, and yes, I am familiar with that. This fat is their fuel, but there is still debate as to whether they carry GPS’s. It has been proven that birds do indeed use both stars and sun to migrate. In extremely foggy or overcast weather situations, when these celestial bodies are concealed, flocks of birds can become disoriented and lost. There is also research that shows that birds can respond to the earth’s magnetic fields — a compass of sorts. Some scientists believe birds acquire a sense of smell during migration and hone in on their final destination by odor.
There are around 700 species of birds known to North America and, according to David Sibley, 75 per cent of these migrate for one reason or another. It is obvious that there is a combination of issues involved in migration and new information arrives annually. This is just a brief overview of a very complex topic.
Pete Gilmore was the smartest of us on August 29 when he went to the Gay Head Cliffs and sure enough found some migrants. His best bird was a dickcissel. He also noted large numbers of red nuthatches and bobolinks pouring over the cliffs, as well as cedar waxwings and American goldfinches. It was interesting to hear from Nat Woodruff that she had a brief visit from a red-breasted nuthatch on the morning of August 28.
Matt Pelikan counted 60 bobolinks in the fields at the Farm Institute, as well as an immature Cooper’s hawk on August 26.
Rob Culbert spotted a whimbrel in the Farm Institute fields on August 25; 15 minutes later he spotted another (or the same) whimbrel in front of the Mattakesset condominiums at Katama. Rob also spotted a male harrier hunting the Katama fields. The next day Matt Pelikan spotted the whimbrel back at the Farm Institute fields and Jeff Bernier later took a picture of probably the same bird.
I joined Lanny McDowell, Pete Gilmore and Warren Woessner on a birding jaunt to Tisbury Great Pond on August 24. We counted 10 red knots, two of which were banded. I have not received information back on these two birds, but did get word from Brad Winn of the Manomet Center that the red knot Lanny found and photographed on Norton Point on August 19 with an orange band was banded in Rio Grande, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina on Nov. 10 2006. How cool is that!
Ken Magnuson sent a nice picture of a pine warbler he took at the Vineyard Golf Course on August 24.
Rob Culbert had a flock of Baltimore orioles vocalizing in his Tisbury yard for the first time this fall and also heard great crested flycatchers on August 28. Eleanor Hubbard e-mailed that she had a gaggle of teenage Baltimore orioles making a racket in her backyard on August 25.
Gus Ben David had an injured ruby-throated hummingbird brought to the World of Reptiles and Birds. Gus is rehabilitating the bird and invites people to come see it. Gus also mentioned that there are flocks of common grackles moving amongst his woods.
William Waterway heard a cock ring-necked pheasant calling in the fields of the Katama Farm on August 26.
Fred and Winnie Spar have been birding up a storm since they arrived. On August 22 they were at Norton Point and counted 18 black skimmers, nine of which were immature. They spotted a single whimbrel and counted four piping plovers. Warren Woessner was at Norton Point on August 23 and counted the same number of black skimmers and added a black tern to the mix. On August 27 at Tisbury Great Pond, Fred and Winnie spotted 10 white-rumped sandpipers and two immature red knots. On August 23 Robert Scott counted three black-bellied plovers, one greater yellowlegs, several short-billed dowitchers and innumerable semipalmated plovers at Tisbury Great Pond.
The last Chilmark Community Center bird walk on August 21 was conducted at Little Beach in Edgartown. We saw the same birds that Robert Scott saw, as well as American oystercatchers, willet, spotted sandpiper, ruddy turnstone, sanderlings, a single pectoral sandpiper and least sandpipers.
Flip Harrington took Allan Keith, Pete Gilmore, Lanny McDowell, Warren Woessner and me out on M/V Auklet for what we hoped to be a pelagic trip. The weather was not agreeable. However, our list of birds seen included a great blue heron, five great egrets, a green heron, spotted sandpiper, ruddy turnstone, sanderling, semipalmated plover, northern harrier and an osprey. Our best birds were seven black terns by Noman’s Land.
Richard Smith called to say he spotted four adults and eight young bobwhites near the State Forest on August 25. Kib Bramhall was quite sure he spotted an immature bald eagle perched on the mast of a sailfish off Gray’s Pond in 7 Gates the week of August 20.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her website is vineyardbirds2.com.