It is a spectacular feeling to be in the midst of a large flock of thousands of tree swallows! The birds are flying gracefully around you, making aerial acrobatics to snatch bugs out of the air. They can fly so close to you that you can hear their wings beating the air.
Such flocks frequently number in the thousands and there may be so many of them that they completely cover the roof of a house when they roost at night. These flocks are a regular September occurrence at Katama or on any of our ocean beaches, from Cape Pogue to Wasque to Aquinnah. They are on their southward migration to their wintering grounds in Florida or even Central America.
William Waterway found such a swarm of swallows— thousands of them —over the fields of Katama on Sept. 8.
Another interesting aspect of tree swallows is that they are one of the few birds that can eat the bayberries that are usually plentiful along the south shore of the Vineyard at this time of the year. They and the yellow-rumped warblers are perhaps the only birds that can digest the waxy layer covering the otherwise edible fruits.
Last week was unusual in that there were two sightings of a southern vagrant, the yellow-throated warbler. Penny Uhlendorf and Scott Stephens saw one in the Phillips Preserve on Monday Sept 3. And on Sept. 6 I had two of them pass through my yard in Vineyard Haven. I was inside working at the computer when I heard a song I did not recognize. Fortunately, it stayed around for a few minutes and I went outside to see what it was. I tracked it to the top of a tree in my front yard where there were two of them on one branch. Then they both flew westward out of my yard.
Another impressive find was Tim Spahr’s five lesser black-backed gulls at Long Point Wildlife Refuge. This unusual species can be difficult to separate from the great black-backed gull. Fortunately, a few of these birds were photographed to confirm their identification. While sightings of this species are becoming more frequent, seeing more than one individual at a time remains unusual.
Of course Aquinnah is still a great place to find a wide selection of songbirds, especially early in the morning. It will remain a hotspot through the fall; the birds are easier to find when the winds are calm. Such was not the case on Sept. 3, when there were strong easterly winds, but Warren Woessner was able to find one female Lapland longspur feeding on the ground with sparrows near the Homestead.
On Sept. 6 winds were light out of the northeast and birders flocked to the western end of the Island. Flip Harrington, Susan Whiting, Alex Greene, Warren Woessner and Tim Spahr were all there. Their highlights were a least flycatcher, yellow-breasted chat, prairie warbler, bobolink, dickcissel and an orchard oriole. At the Land Bank’s Gay Head morraine were the following: a red-breasted nuthatch, red-eyed vireo, eastern phoebe, ovenbird, northern waterthrush, black and white warbler, blackburnian warbler, redstart and a chestnut-sided warbler.
On Sept. 10 at the cliffs, with light northerly winds, Matt Pelikan, Alex Greene and Lanny McDowell found a palm warbler, Cape May warbler, Wilson’s warbler, common yellowthroat, lots of blackpolls, lots of red-breasted nuthatches, bobolinks, cedar waxwings and, last but not least, a clay-colored sparrow. The clay-colored sparrow was still there the next day when Alex Greene added to this list by spotting a palm warbler and a rather early white-throated sparrow. This latter species usually arrives in October.
While Aquinnah is a hotspot, birding has been good elsewhere around the Island as well.
A lot of birds were observed on Sept. 6. Pete Gilmour spotted a merlin in the western end of the state forest near the heath hen sculpture, which can be accessed from gate 19 on the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road (yes, gates at each fire lane are uniquely numbered). Larry Hepler spotted a veery in a bird bath in his Chilmark yard. This small thrush is not seen regularly on the Vineyard, and might have been missed if not for the bird bath, confirming the importance of shallow water in a bird bath to attract birds. Ken Magnuson spotted the yellow-crowned night heron at Eel Pond, along with the more usual black-bellied plovers, greater yellowlegs, American oystercatchers and great egrets. And Susan Whiting had three great blue herons at Hariph’s Creek, plus a Cooper’s hawk and eastern bluebirds at Quansoo.
Jeff Bernier spotted and photographed a pectoral sandpiper and black skimmers at Norton Point beach on Sept. 7. That same day Claudia Rogers spotted a great blue heron at Crackatuxet Cove.
On Sept. 8, Penny Uhlendorf reported that birding at Hoft Farm and South Duarte’s pond produced wood ducks, a blue-winged teal, a green heron, a great blue heron, two solitary sandpipers, an eastern wood-pewee, an eastern phoebe, eastern bluebirds, a ruby-throated hummingbird and a juvenile chipping sparrow (which does not look like an adult).
Mat Simoneau spotted a black tern between East and West Chops on Sept. 8, as he was sailing in the Moffett Cup race. On the same day, Pete Cruikshank spotted two species at Mink Meadows pond; a belted kingfisher and greater yellowlegs.
Tim Johnson found a juvenile peregrine falcon at Lobsterville on Sept. 9. Gene Sisco photographed three great egrets perched on wooden sluiceways in downtown Edgartown harbor.
Tim and Sheila Baird reported that five great egrets were in the marshes along Sengekontacket Pond last week. And they had a red-breasted nuthatch visit their feeder on Sept. 1; they did not have any of them last winter.
In addition to Tim Spahr’s lesser black-backed gull reported above and his contributions at Aquinnah, this past week he also found a Philadelphia vireo at Sheriff’s Meadow in Edgartown, and a very cooperative Baird’s sandpiper at Long Point.
And last but not least, not all sounds you hear are birds! There are crickets, cicadas and katydids calling day and night. But listen for the one-note call of the pinkletinks, which can be heard calling from even the tops of trees at any time of the day. When you hear them, note how far they are from the nearest wetland where they chorus in the spring. On the evening of Sept. 8, one was calling very loudly from the outside of my living room picture window, about a quarter mile from the nearest wetland.
There are lots of birds around, so please get out and look for them, and then be sure to report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard bird hotline at 508-645-2913 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Culbert leads guided birding tours (www.facebook.com/robert.culbert.58) and is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.