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The Bare Truth About Birding Martha's Vineyard
by Hart Rufe

This classic Larus article appeared in the Spring 1989 issue. It also was presented as an Ornithological Moment in 2011.

 

On Aug. 16 to 18 [1988], a group of us went to Martha's Vineyard, Mass., to search for the Red-billed Tropicbird sporadically reported there this summer. The last confirmed sighting was on Aug. 8, but we decided to take our chances anyway.

We took a small boat from Chatham to Monomoy Island, an eight-mile long barrier island extending south from the "elbow" of Cape Cod. Spectacular shore birding occurs on Monomoy during migration – last year’s report of a Cox’s Sandpiper, for example. Our best bird was a Bar-tailed Godwit mixed in with a large flock of Hudsonians. Other than that, we studied vast flocks of shorebirds and found generally the same birds we might find in New Jersey.

The last day of the trip, we took a whale watching boat out of Hyannis-Barnstable and in addition to numerous Hump-backed Whales, we saw Cory's, Greater and Manx Shearwaters, both Leach's and Wilson's Storm-Petrels and a flock of Red-necked Phalaropes.

However, the highlight of the trip was the excursion to Martha's Vineyard. After the ferry ride to the island, which was unproductive for birds, we went to Gayhead Cliffs, a rocky promontory at the southeastern edge of the island where the bird had been seen. Visibility was sparkling - it turned out to be the first clear day in about two weeks.

As we were scanning the area for the tropicbird, we discovered a nude beach at the base of Gayhead Cliffs and, while watching for the tropicbird to put in its appearance, we decided to bird the nude beach. Of course, we were properly equipped: Included in our arsenal was a Questar, which everyone knows provides excellent close-up and personal views.

One of the first comments on nude-beach birding [Editor's note: This phrase illustrates the extremely valuable role played in our language by the lowly hyphen] is that it is absolutely untrue that the good Lord created all men (and women, for that matter) equal.

However, after diligent searching, we were able to compile the following bird list on the nude beach: We saw both the Downy and the Hairy; the Greater, Lesser, Little and Least. (You could distinguish the Greater by the slightly larger, upturned bill. Several in the group, though, missed the Least for lack of interest. )

We also spotted the Brown-headed, Brown-capped, Brown-crested, Black-headed, Black-crowned, Black-capped and Black-whiskered, as well as the Yellow-crowned, Golden-crowned, White-fronted, the Ruddy and the White-headed, White-breasted and White-rumped.

We also were able to account for the Tufted, Horned, Great-horned, Hoary, Broad-tailed and both Buff-breasted and Buff-bellied.

But it was clearly the "reds" that provided the most excitement. We saw Red-headed, Red-faced, Red-naped, Red-necked, Red-eyed, Red-shouldered, Red-breasted, Red-tailed, Red-bellied, Red-cockaded, Red-legged, Red-footed and one magnificent Red-shafted.

We searched thoroughly for several extralimital species, such as both the Brown and Blue-footed Boobies (not cold enough for Blue-footed), as well as the Great Tit (several times we thought we had one) or the Blue Tit (still not cold enough) or the Coal Tit (surely a mountain bird not to be found at the beach), but without success.

Needless to say, the tropic bird did not show up (the last report remains Aug. 8), but it really didn't matter. When we gave this report at the September 1 [1988] DVOC meeting and suggested a similar trip next year, it became obvious that we would need several buses for the outing.