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Science & Environment

Location, Location, Location: Why Cape-and-Islands Birders Have the Best Views of Fall Migration

Vern Laux

It is hard not to notice the change going on in the natural world as we enter the month of October. The first of October heralds a major shift in bird migration and bird populations. As hours of light rapidly decreases, ambient temperatures begin to plummet and signs of the upcoming winter obvious and everywhere-birds are either on the move or preparing to stick out the rather brutal northeast winter. Either way for the birds-there is lots to do and lots going on.

Bird migration is never so visible - you can actually witness birds reorienting to the west after a night of flying as the sun crosses the horizon - as it is in October on the Cape and Islands. There are birds, large and small, all heading south with a purpose as they flee winter’s approach. Bird brains indeed to fly from the boreal forest to the New World tropics for the winter where the living is comparatively easy.

These birds have a life style that can only be marveled at. Imagine flying from the tropics where they spend a full 8 months and then fly north thousands of miles crossing large stretches of open water as in the Gulf of Mexico to take advantage of seasonally abundant food resources and lots of nesting areas relatively free of predators compared to the tropics to breed. Then after breeding its back to the tropics where the living in terms of foraging for food is far easier.

The danger lies in the hazards of migrating many thousands of miles each way. Yet these remarkable animals have such powers of flight, stamina, navigating skills and countless things we still know almost nothing about that allow them to perform what really seems like a miraculous migration, twice annually. The next few weeks features a chance to see bird migration up close and personal in a way that is just not possible during the rest of the year.

The Cape and Islands are geographically located as to be the perfect spot to witness the fall migration when bird populations are at their annual highs with all the young birds, first time migrants in the mix. Ideal conditions to witness flights of birds on the Outer Cape, Chatham, the south shore of the Cape, Woods Hole and the Elizabeth Islands especially Cuttyhunk Island as well as both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are after a clear night with brisk northwest winds. Most land birds are nocturnal migrants and they will be using the quartering tailwind of a northwest wind to fly south and east-to the Cape and Islands and beyond during the night.

This past weekend with perfect weather was ideal for bird migration and throngs of birds obliged those seeking them out. Impressive were flocks of American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Blue Jays and Red-winged Blackbirds. Also on the move were small flocks of a small winter finch called Pine Siskins, a few Purple Finches and lots of American Goldfinches. Interspersed among these common species were a variety of vireos, warblers and sparrows making it a pleasure to be out in the field.

The next weeks are the best of the year for variety of species and large numbers of birds so get out if you can. The Nantucket Birding Festival, a very special event that gives a great overview of that island as well as views of lots of birds runs from October 16-19 and there is still room for people to attend. Until next week-keep your eyes to the sky!