An Avian Tour Around the Compass Rose

Nov 7, 2018

Credit Mark Faherty

Fall on the Cape and Islands can be a head-spinning time, with interesting birds coming at us from literally all directions – migrants from the north and west, wind-blown vagrants from the south and southwest, and seabirds from the east. Our weather, and particularly the wind, have been all over the place of late, bringing interesting birds from all compass points.

Let’s start from the north. A few weeks ago we talked about the winter finch forecast, in which a biologist from Canada predicts whether certain northern birds will irrupt southwards this winter. Cone, seed, and fruit crops across the boreal forest have been low, and we have already begun to see some of these so called “irruptive” migrants moving south in search of food. First, Evening Grosbeaks have turned up at a handful of backyard feeders from Plymouth to Truro, often puzzling the folks reporting them. They sort of look like gigantic, steroid-abusing goldfinches, with huge seed-cracking bills.

Back in the 70s when they were more abundant, Evening Grosbeaks descended upon bird feeders in big flocks, often cleaning them out. An unexplained retraction of their range since then means any sighting is a rarity now, so be on the lookout for these hungry finches at your feeder as this seems to be the year. Here are sounds from a feeder flock in case you want to pick them out by ear – listen for both the short, downward slurred calls and the rattling trills, similar to a starling flight call.

Next, Bohemian Waxwings are the bigger, more northern, more colorful, and more erratic cousins of our familiar Cedar Waxwings. While a few turn up every winter, especially on the Outer Cape, this may be one of the bigger invasion years. In flight, their stouter, more starling like profile and lower and slower call helps separate them from Cedar Waxwing.

Look for them at fruiting vines, trees, and shrubs, like multiflora rose or crabapple, or for single individual mixed with Cedar Waxwings. Single birds were reported from Fort Hill in Eastham this week.

At the same time these mostly Canadian and Alaskan birds are storming across our northern border, birds of warmer, southern climes have also blown in, possibly because of recent, strong southwesterly winds. Cattle Egrets are always scarce in Massachusetts, but groups of up to 4 have shown up across the state in recent days, including one in Eastham, four at Bartlett Farm on Nantucket, and another at Plymouth Airport. This species has an interesting story, having colonized the New World from its native range in Africa by crossing the Atlantic. These adaptable and mostly terrestrial egrets are equally at home among Cape Buffalo on the Serengeti, on suburban lawns in Florida, or riding Holsteins on a dairy farm.  I suspect more are out there, so look for a stubbier, less glamorous version of our usual egrets walking around in a grassy area.

Our final species in this avian tour around the compass rose is an especially rare visitor. It was discovered by a group of birders blitzing Nantucket this past weekend in an annual tradition honoring of our late friend Vern Laux. While keeping their eyes to the sky, these friends-of-Vern noticed a Gray Kingbird, an essentially Caribbean species expected no further north than Florida. Vern’s Nantucket Birding Festivals had a mind-boggling track record for turning up uber-rare birds, and Vern had high standards as a result. This was only the sixth ever Gray Kingbird record for Massachusetts, and the first for Nantucket, so while he preferred first-for-the hemisphere records, I suspect that somewhere, Vern is smiling.