The Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Other Rare Birds

Apr 18, 2018

Fork-tailed Flycatcher
Credit Mark Faherty

What has a forked tail and catches flies? In reality, there are several bird species that fit this description, but this week in this place there’s only one right answer - the super-rare Fork-tailed Flycatcher.


On Friday, birders discovered an exceptionally lost Fork-tailed Flycatcher on East Sandwich Beach, where it was casually fly-catching from stair posts, pretending that it meant to fly here instead of Peru or Venezuela, where it should be. This represents just the tenth ever record for this species in our listening area.


It’s been a while since I’ve had a bona fide rare bird to talk about, but it’s getting to be peak time for spring rarities, often overly eager birds who have seriously overshot their breeding ranges. The Fork-tailed Flycatchers that end up in the United States come from the South American population, which breeds in Argentina and southern Brazil. As a breeding bird of the temperate southern hemisphere, these birds fly north for the winter, which is our summer. Get it? That means that this bird, likely a youngster that fledged in February from a nest near, say, Buenos Aires, was trying to fly north to winter in the vast tropical savannahs of Venezuela, known as the Llanos. This guy must have really gotten up a head of steam, because he overflew Venezuela by 2300 miles. To make matters worse, I hear his luggage ended up in Des Moines.


Alas, instead of the insect-rich tropical savannah he sought, he got the meteorological slap-in-the-face that is a Cape Cod spring. Fork-tailed Flycatchers typically stick around for several days when they turn up, but this was not great habitat or great weather, and no one has seen it since Friday. It’s possible it moved somewhere else locally and just hasn’t been re-found.  Check any open habitats for a handsome flycatcher in formal tones of gray and black, with a gratuitously long, forked tail (though if it were an adult its tail would be substantially longer – in breeding males it’s twice the body length). It will be sitting on some prominent, probably low perch, behaving like its close cousin, our familiar Eastern Kingbird.


A Fork-tailed Flycatcher once showed up outside my office door at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary in the fall of 2009. It stayed for a week, and people came from at least as far away as New Jersey to check it off their list. This is a good example of the kind of tourism bump you can get from a rare bird – I mean, imagine that – someone from New Jersey coming to Cape Cod? What are the odds.


If wayward flycatchers aren’t your bag, there are certainly other avian delights out there to lure you from your cozy house, like wayward sparrows. For example, a Lark Sparrow was found hopping around at High Head in Truro on Saturday. While the average person probably considers sparrows to be a brown-and-gray-toned snoozefest, this species is actually striking - big for a sparrow and with a distinctive helmet of complex chestnut and black markings on their heads. They don’t usually come further east than Illinois, and some years none are found on the Cape, so it’s a newsworthy bird, to be sure.


Maybe seabirds are more your speed, in which case I would head to Race Point for the chance to see a rare Pacific Loon, or the spectacle of more than 1000 migrating Red-throated Loons winging their way back to the Arctic, as one observer recently did. Whatever your thing is, whether it’s rarities or migrants or backyard birdwatching, the point is that late April can bring some real magic to these parts. So put on your hat, gloves, boots, long underwear, and rain gear, and get out there and enjoy spring!