Migrant Birds Trickling In

Apr 4, 2018

Snow Egret.
Credit Mark Faherty

As I gazed forlornly upon the flock of winter juncos lingering in my snow-covered yard on Monday, May felt very far away. Here on the Cape, Old Man Winter has been like that in-law who keeps changing their flight so they can stay at your house “just a few more days”. But despite this snowy little setback, there has been a significant pulse of new spring birds as March has turned to April, so take heart.


Bird migration does not progress evenly, but rather through fits and starts mediated by weather patterns as well as the calendar. And after a few weeks with little evidence of spring migration, the past week has brought us a certified “fit”. Several species not present a week ago are suddenly widespread, all short distance migrants typical of early spring.


Bell’s Neck Conservation area in West Harwich, always a spring birding hotspot, hosted several of the new arrivals. A male Blue-winged Teal and an American Bittern were among the more uncommon sightings, but birders also noted more expected migrants, like the groups of both Great and Snowy Egrets suddenly stalking the still dormant marsh grasses in search of mummichogs and other fish. Black-crowned Night-herons have also returned, representing the overnight shift in the fish-eating bird guild.  These herons and egrets likely wintered somewhere in the southeastern US and made the short hop north, perhaps on their way to nesting colonies either on Monomoy or the rocky islands off Cape Ann. Wading birds nest relatively early, and, while they don’t nest on Cape Cod, Great Blue Herons were already on nests in the well-known colony near the intersection of 495 and Rt. 2 in Littleton as I passed by on Easter.


Greater Yellowlegs are also suddenly back in our marshes. These loud and lanky sandpipers can winter as far north as Connecticut, so the Cape is just a quick hop north. Listen for their strident, 3-5 note calls in salt marshes everywhere now.


A few of their daintier, quieter cousins, the Lesser Yellowlegs, have also been seen, so look for both among any yellowlegs flocks you see. But be careful – they’re a little sensitive about being called “Lesser”.

The Eastern Phoebe is another classic April migrant that has arrived essentially overnight. The first couple of scouts arrived during the last half of March, but now individuals are widespread. These guys eat primarily flying insects, so coming back this time of year has its risks. But phoebes’ ability to supplement their buggy diet with whatever fruits have been left by the winter robins and waxwings allows them to return much earlier than other flycatcher species. The same holds true for the phoebe’s analog among the swallows, the Tree Swallow. Flocks of up to 30 have been seen over fields and marshes this week, and some are already checking out next boxes, which they will try to claim before the bluebirds do.


The ocean has started to show the first hints of its summer plumage this week, as a handful of Laughing Gulls have been seen in scattered places like Vineyard Haven, Race Point in Provincetown, and especially Forest Beach in Chatham, which is close to their big breeding colony on South Monomoy. For a classic sound of summer, listen for their raucous chuckling at a beach near you.


I’ve never understood what they are laughing at, so if you ever figure it out, please let me know.


While these spring arrivals are great, we shouldn’t let ourselves be fooled – winter birds like Snowy Owls and razorbills are still loitering, and with the way things have been going, who knows if we are even done with snow storms. But hopefully Old Man Winter will get the hint, move out of our spare bedroom, and catch that next flight home – he overstayed his welcome a long time ago.