The beach is the place to be. July’s hot weather this summer beckons people to a place to jump into the ocean, sound or pond to cool off. Now there are a bunch of us who wear weird-looking long pants that zip off at the knees, long-sleeved shirts with a label that says “Buzz off” and sneakers or hiking boots on the beach. We don’t carry umbrellas or picnic baskets but sport binoculars around our necks and perhaps a spotting scope over our shoulders. We are birders or bird watchers.
July is the beginning of an exciting time for bird watchers on the coasts as the shorebirds that have bred in the tundra and are on their way back to Central and South America for the winter. They choose our shorelines for a visit due to the plethora of food available on our flats and pond shores. Shortly after the Fourth of July, shorebirds and terns begin to arrive on the Vineyard, many of which we may not have seen since last summer.
So the puzzles begin yet again. That small shorebird — what color are the legs, how long is the bill, how long are the wings and do they protrude beyond the wings? All these field marks are important to identify, say, a least sandpiper from a semipalmated sandpiper. But there are other aspects which are important for identification and those are voice or calls and behavior.
On Tuesday, the Chilmark Community Center bird walk had an excellent example of how behavior helped us identify a sandpiper. We were at the edge of Black Point Pond and were watching least and semipalmated sandpipers and plovers when we spotted another sandpiper, which was about the same size as a semipalmated sandpiper but it was feeding in a different fashion. Unlike the least sandpipers who were feeding on the drier part of the mud flat or the semipalmated sandpipers that were looking for food along the wet parts of the flats, this sandpiper was almost up to its belly in the water feeding. This particular sandpiper also had quite a long bill which if you looked at it carefully appeared to be slightly bent or drooped at the end. By putting all this information together, we decided that we had a Western sandpiper.
Young terns can also cause some soul searching for identification. Here flight patterns and location of birds while feeding can shed some light on their identification.
Last week a black tern was seen at Norton’s Point and although the color of this bird is a giveaway, as an adult the immature can be sorted out from the rest of the flock by its very erratic flight and its preference to hunt over salt marsh.
Pay heed to not only the field marks, but also the behavior of birds. It will help you make the proper identifications. And get out to the beaches and slip a pair of binoculars into that picnic basket.
Lanny McDowell spotted and photographed a black tern in with common and roseate terns at the Norton’s Point breach on Tuesday. Earlier, on July 12, Rob Culbert and his birding group walked from Katama to the Norton’s Point opening and spotted a flock of loafing common and roseate terns numbering in the 300s. Rob mentioned that the least terns are still nesting. The group also spotted American oystercatchers, semipalmated and least sandpipers, willets, short-billed dowitchers and a sharp-tailed sparrow which is probably a salt marsh variety.
My Chilmark Community Center walk had a nice selection of shorebirds at Black Point Pond on the 15 of July including western, least and semipalmated sandpipers, short-billed dowitchers, semipalmated, black-bellied plovers and six piping plovers, a pair of American oystercatchers with one young, a northern harrier and a great blue and a green heron. We were lucky enough to have a salt marsh sharp-tailed sparrow hop up on a grass stalk and remain long enough to watch it in the scope and identify it as the salt marsh variety.
Great news from Felix Neck: Suzan Bellincampi reports that their barn owl has laid a new clutch. She is sitting on seven new eggs after successfully fledging four young from the last set.
In other Felix Neck news, Suzan said they had a greater yellowlegs in the marsh between July 8 and 13 and a northern harrier hunting the fields on July 14.
Peter Shea of Oak Bluffs had a mysterious bird call sounding in his yard two weeks ago. After researching and continually hearing the call he discovered that the bird in question was a great crested flycatcher —no doubt nesting if he has been around all summer.
Bert Fischer had a very early sighting of a sharp-shinned hawk being harassed by red-winged blackbirds on July 15 in Aquinnah. He also watched a scarlet tanager devour some of the blueberries in his patch.
Flip Harrington and I spotted our first great blue heron on Tisbury Great Pond on July 15, although we heard one the evening of July 14.
Gus Ben David has families of Baltimore orioles and tufted titmice around the World of Reptiles and Birds. He spotted a green heron on Beach Road last week. Gus also mentioned that the Eastern screech owls have hatched out around the Island and are very vocal at this time of year.
Tim and Sheila Baird still are seeing great egrets at Sengekontacket Pond, but they also spotted one on the rocks by Packer’s in Tisbury on July 14. They also have spotted up to six willets and a snowy egret at Sengekontacket marshes this last week.
Of note: Rob Bierregaard will give a lecture, Osprey Migration from the Vineyard and Beyond, at the Oak Bluffs library on July 29 at 6:30 p.m.
Please report your bird sightings to the bird hot line at 508-627-4922.
Susan B. Whiting is author of the newly published Vineyard Birds II. In July and August, she will lead bird walks from the Chilmark Community Center on Tuesday mornings.