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In This Place

New Birds Arrive on Cape Cod, Some Unexpected

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Linda Tanner
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flickr / 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Golden-Crowned Sparrow

In the bird world, the first days of May represent a clear and consistent transition point. While it seems like a few things are back early every year, stoking our hopes through the latter half of April, things don’t really get going until we flip that calendar page. The first two days of this May brought, as usual, a slew of newly arrived breeding birds to my neighborhood and beyond: Baltimore Orioles, Great-crested Flycatchers, Gray Catbirds, House Wrens, Yellow Warblers, and on and on. Even hummingbirds, those ambitious little sprites that start returning amidst the uncertain weather of mid-April, are not really, truly “back” until May comes around – only then will you typically see more than one at a time. Why is this? Do birds know what month it is too?

The birds I mentioned all have one thing in common – they breed locally, and so are on a schedule. Highly migratory birds are famous for returning to their breeding territory from far-off wintering grounds within a day or two window each year, weather be damned. Transient migrants, like the bulk of the warblers and many of the other songbirds, are more fickle, their fates tied to the winds and storms. While your backyard orioles are back on the same singing perches as last year by May 1st or 2nd, the birds bound for boreal forests and other points north are less predictable here, often arriving en mass only when a warm front to the south combines with rain to the north.

Migration can be subtle away from a few well-known theaters for catching the show – the Beech Forest, Pilgrim Heights, Aquinnah, Gooseberry Neck. You may not much notice migration unless you’re in the right place when the sky is raining birds, as was the case Sunday morning - birders staked out near Provincetown Airport tallied 45 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 14 American Kestrels, 82 Purple Finches, and over 500 Yellow-rumped Warblers. Even goldfinches migrate, though you’d think all they do is sit on your feeder and eat – they counted over 600 passing by.

Sometimes it just takes one bird to let you know migration is happening, and urgently so. On Sunday, the family and I stopped by MacMillan Pier in Provincetown to have some lunch and see what was happening that might interest a three-year-old. As we watched a scallop boat unloading at the very end of the pier, I kept imagining I was hearing the clear notes of a White-throated Sparrow through the din of trucks, boats, and machinery. Eventually I found the source, an actual White-throated Sparrow hunkered down in a pile of old lobster traps, singing away 700 yards from the nearest suitable habitat. Soon it will return to some shrubby recent clear-cut or burned-over forest clearing in a lovely northern forest, but for that day, some smelly old fishing gear and concrete were enough to inspire a hopeful song from this weary traveler. Or maybe it was just hormones.

Speaking of sparrows in the genus Zonotrichia - you know it wouldn’t be a bird report without mention of some rare bird you’ve never heard of. A week or so ago, a very special sparrow turned up near Edgartown, a little brown and gray bird with a crown glowing gold. It was the Cape and Island’s third-ever record of an aptly-named Pacific Northwest species – a Golden-crowned Sparrow. I’ve only ever seen one or two that I can remember, transient birds seen in the course of west coast field work, but their melancholy song has always stayed with me. The last one to visit the Vineyard was in 1955, and the most recent Cape record was 1980, when I was still in short pants, so don’t expect another to be along soon.

The next few weeks will be intense, with a lot of feathered bodies passing through this area very quickly, kind of like if tourist season was condensed into three weeks. But in this case the tourists are better behaved and often better looking – they just don’t tip very well.