With Independence Day falling on Saturday this coming weekend, the exodus to the beaches from the cities and suburbs begins in earnest. It's a perfect start to the summer season and - surprisingly - the beginning of the southward migration of birds. While land birds are finishing up the breeding season on the Cape and Islands or attempting a second brood, the spectacularly fit waders, sandpipers and plovers, are already taking flight on another leg of their staggering annual migration.
While the Fourth of July is the start of “our” summer, for many shorebirds, it signals the beginning of the southbound migration. On every cold front from now through September, globetrotting sandpipers and plovers will be riding the air currents. Finished with their breeding activities, honed through evolution to a remarkably brief period, these birds arrive like clockwork around the Fourth of July, on their journey south.
These earliest southbound migrants almost certainly have not nested successfully, either having lost eggs or chicks to predators like Arctic foxes, jaegers or snowy owls, or fierce Arctic weather. With such a short breeding season they don’t have time to try again and instinctively know it is time to embark on their continuing annual journey.
Most of these early migrating shorebirds will continue south to southern South America making them amongst the longest distant migrants on the planet. They make a staggering annual roundtrip journey from the extreme northern hemisphere to the far southern hemisphere, keeping them in a perpetual “endless summer.” This summer is punctuated by regular long nonstop flights that may last for several thousand miles. They are spectacular creatures, superb athletes that routinely go seemingly impossible distances.
These winged wonders breed in a brief period before getting back in the air and keeping to their fantastic schedule of globe-trotting. So, while we two-legged terrestrial creatures are celebrating the start of summer, many shorebirds have already hatched young more than 3,000 miles north and west of us, and now arrive on our shores to feed, fatten (i.e. refuel), grow new feathers and rest before continuing in many cases all the way to the tip of South America.
Already, southbound migrants have appeared on the wind. Whimbrel and Greater yellowlegs have already put in appearances on the Cape and Islands. The elegant and scarce Hudsonian godwit, with its long, upturned beak, the rarest of the 4 godwit species on the planet, is a regular at South Beach in Chatham during the month of July.
It is a good time for birders to be here, and an even better time to be looking at or for birds. Aside from the local breeders - American oystercatchers, piping plovers, and lots of willets - there are increasingly more transients and southbound migrants showing up. The flats are the place to be for birds and to stay cool as well.
In the middle of the day when it gets hot and the birding slows, there are dragonflies, butterflies and the myriad and diverse flora of the Cape and Islands to keep one's interest. In short, if you tire of the beach, grab a pair of close-focusing binoculars and go for a walk either there or elsewhere and see what is going on around you.
Failing to mention what is happening in the waters around the region would be a big mistake. The near shore waters with recent prevalent fog and colder-than-usual water temperatures have had impressive numbers of many species of seabirds. Wilson’s storm-petrels have been widespread the past couple of weeks. These tiny seabirds are one of the most abundant birds in the world; they are the most abundant seabird. This species breeds in the Austral summer in a wide variety of Antarctic locations and sub Antarctic islands. They are spending what is their winter with us in our northern summer.