Bird Migration is Snowballing

May 9, 2018

Credit Claudine Lamothe /

While April slapped us around and spit in our face, it looks like May is treating us a little better. Spring is fairly exploding all around us as leaves, flowers, and colorful birds suddenly grace gray, previously lifeless branches. It might even be safe to plant some summer annual seeds. It’s definitely safe to go birding.


Oaks are finally erupting in their subtle but ornithologically important floral displays. Their dangling, wind-pollinated flowers, though unassuming in shades of green and amber, signal the emergence of all the small caterpillars and other insects that fuel songbirds on their northbound migration, and allow our local nesting birds to feed their chicks over the next couple of months. While earlier flowering willows and red maples attract the first migrants, once the oaks are in bloom, the hungry songbirds can be found probing the flowers and new leaves for insects and caterpillars – think of them as an organic, low budget exterminator protecting your trees from insect defoliation.


A common migrant warbler that you can probably see and hear in your neighborhood around now is the Northern Parula, tiny but stunning in blues, reds, and yellows in spring. Listen for their rising buzzy songs from any kind of flowering tree over the next few weeks.



A different, and one could say terminally drab warbler, one the average person would pass off as a “sparrow”, or more likely would never notice at all, is raising birders’ pulse rates this week at Santuit Pond in Mashpee. The Swainson’s Warbler is rare, secretive, and seldom seen, which is a recipe for instant popularity with birdwatchers. This is only the fourth record ever for the Cape and Islands for this scarce breeding bird of swampy southeastern bottomlands.


Meanwhile, on salt water, migration is bigger and more obvious than in the woods. Noisy terns are back as of this week, streaming up and down ocean-side shorelines in search of small bait before they settle into their huge breeding colony on Monomoy. Beautiful, delicate Bonaparte’s Gulls join them over bait, as they fuel up for their journey back to freshwater ponds and marshes in the interior of the vast boreal forests of Canada. Hungry jaegers are now coming through right on their heels, looking to steal fish from terns and small gulls in 5th-gear, acrobatic chase downs. Meanwhile, eye-catching squadrons of giant gannets plunge dive their way north to noisy breeding colonies in the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec. 


A parade of leviathans, some coming, others going, can also be seen from ocean beaches, as was the case at Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro this past weekend. There, outgoing North Atlantic right whales were skim feeding just off the beach, their massive heads like rocky islands. At the same time humpbacks recently returned for the summer were surface feeding further out, hosting clouds of gulls looking to snatch a stray fish from their gaping maws. Their fellow fish eating Minke and Fin Whales slipped by unobtrusively, too cool for the flamboyant feeding displays that have made their humpbacked cousins so popular.


I know I’m always ending these reports with some version of “get out there and bird”, but this time I mean it. May is not to be missed, as most of the fancier songbirds, like warblers, grosbeaks, and tanagers, are gone in a blink. Same for the shorebirds, who we briefly see in their breeding finery this month before they fly nonstop to the Arctic. By June, all of them will be gone. So, whether it’s on your own, on a Cape Cod Bird Club walk, or at your local nature sanctuary, just get out there and bird!