Migrating birds are winging in on Shelter Island

Baltimore Oriole

A Baltimore Oriole spotted by Shelter Islander Don Bindler

A couple of Sundays ago, 38 different bird species were spotted during a “May-gration” bird walk at Mashomack Preserve.

To the uninitiated, that may sound like a remarkable number for a single outing, but Tom Damiani, who leads “May-gration” walks every Sunday of the month, was not impressed.

“Typically, you’d see over 100 species in May — more than any other month,” said Damiani as he prepared to head out into Mashomack once again with a small group of intrepid bird watchers in search of transitory feathered visitors.

It was 7 a.m. on Mother’s Day, the weather was identical to what it had been for weeks on end — cold, gray and overcast. That’s not great news for bird lovers hoping to get a view of warblers and other species passing through the East End on their way to nesting grounds in Canada or further north.

“You need good weather events to bring them in or wind from the west,” Damiani explained as the group headed out to hit the trails. “Winds and weather do that. It’s hit or miss.”

Unchanging, repetitive weather patterns with cold rainy days and east winds have meant it’s largely been miss this year at Mashomack. The warblers, fly catchers and vireos we’d expect to see on Shelter Island at this point have failed to find their way here in large numbers.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of other bird species to be found in Mashomack this spring, and the day didn’t disappoint.

A prairie warbler spotted by Shelter Islander Don Bindler.

A prairie warbler spotted by Shelter Islander Don Bindler.

Early in the walk, a pair of bluebirds was spotted resting on a nesting box, possibly looking to stake their claim. Damiani noted that it’s been a rough spring for bluebirds too, and the cold weather is believed to have killed many bluebird offspring. That means they will attempt to raise a second brood, and bluebirds are now competing for boxes with swallows as well, who are also moving in.

While even beginner birders can’t fail to miss the flashy hue of bluebirds perched on a box in an open meadow or the forked tails of swallows on the wing, birding is largely an aural rather than visual experience. For birders who know their stuff, far more species are identified by their call. Seeing them is the icing on the cake.

That’s why it pays to head out into the wild with someone who knows his stuff, like Damiani, and soon, he and other birders on the walk were calling out the names of species based on songs emanating from the woods and meadows of Mashomack.

Early on, one prevalent call did come from a visiting migrant — the prairie warbler whose song rises in pitch and is easily identifiable.

“Some call it the praying warbler because it’s call is like sending prayers up to heaven,” Damiani explained.

The unexpected voice of a raven was also picked up by ear. Though they resemble oversized crows and don’t seem particularly exotic, ravens are unusual here — more often found in upstate New York or Connecticut, though Damiani said there are some ravens now nesting in Hampton Bays.

“I would love to see them nesting here. They’re becoming more common as far as sightings,” he said. “Around the visitor center a couple times I’ve heard them.”

But this walk was about the migrants, and once the group was well into the woods, it seemed as if the trees came alive with the songs of the targeted quarry. Over the course of the next half hour, all along the trail, the birders paused on occasion and pointed in various directions, calling out the names of what they were hearing.

yellow warbler

A yellow warbler, spotted by Shelter Islander Don Bindler.

“Orchard oriole.”


“Yellow warbler.”


“Yellow-rumped warbler.”

“Red-eyed vireo.”

It wasn’t all birding by sound, however. Often the sounds of the birds were accompanied by flashes of movement in the trees and a quick focus of the binoculars on the targeted area yielded a successful sighting. Sometimes the emerging leaves of the trees would block the view of the bird, and the more skittish species would soon take off.

In an open meadow, yellow warblers swooped and tweeted as they made themselves known to one another, never pausing long enough to appear as more than a flash of color. But without a doubt, the prize of the day came near the end of the walk in the form of a brilliant scarlet tanager, the first of the season noted Mr. Damiani, perched in full view on an unobstructed branch.

It sat there for several minutes and even a rank novice couldn’t miss that one.

At that point, despite the fact heavy clouds were gathering and the rain would soon begin coming down hard, May at Mashomack, it seemed, was finally looking up.

“May-gration” walks are offered at Mashomack Preserve every Sunday in May from 7 to 9 a.m. The event is free and all birding levels are welcome. Bring binoculars. For more information call (631) 749-1001.