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The Rarest of Fancy Birds Visit Cape Cod

Sean Williams


October is a time when I struggle with the bird report. The risk of producing a rambling, disjointed essay is high, as it feels like everything amazing in the birding world is happening at once. 


Do I devote the week to talking about the recent influx of Purple Finches, and tell folks to watch for them at their feeders? Do I focus on the amazing seabirds photographed at Race Point in the last week? What about the large numbers of herons, egrets, and terns massing on the dropping tides at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary right now? Being who I am, I’d mostly like to talk about the arms-length list of rare birds among the almost 200 total species reported on the Cape in the last week. So we’re going to do that.


The rarest of the many fancy birds to cross the binocular views of birders this week was a Lark Bunting found hopping around on the Hatches Harbor dike road in Provincetown. Part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, this dirt road crosses stunted pines, wild native cranberry bogs, and restored saltmarsh before dumping you into the high dunes near Race Point lighthouse. It makes for a great birding hike any time of year, but can be best, and least mosquito-laden, in fall. It eventually takes you to the legendary Race Point proper, where deep oceanic water laps at the shoreline, bringing offshore seabirds to your feet.


But I should get back to this bunting, in part because it represents only the 8th ever record for this species in Massachusetts. This state bird of Colorado breeds in western grasslands and winters in Texas and Mexico in huge, roving flocks. Almost all other sparrows have essentially one adult plumage – males, female, winter, and summer, they all look the same - but not these guys. A breeding male is striking – deep black with a bold white patch on the folded wings. Unfortunately for us, the birds that end up here are usually immatures or in winter plumage, meaning that you would probably find it an unremarkable, sparrow-looking thing. But when you’re a birder, nothing is more beautiful than a streaky brown thing when it’s a bird you’ve never seen before, or when you know you’ll instantly be the envy of the other birders.


Other wacky species seen and photographed this week included two more visitors from out west – a Townsend’s Solitaire hanging out by the Monomoy Lighthouse, and a Say’s Phoebe on Cuttyhunk. The solitaire is a grayish bird vaguely resembling a mockingbird to the uninitiated, but the phoebe is an eye-catching salmon-colored flycatcher. Neither has any business being this far east, and this little spate of western vagrants tells me that there are still likely other rarities out there to be found. They could be anywhere from your local community garden to your yard, since fall rarities tend to like open, sunny, weedy places. Which is all the more reason to not mow your lawn anymore. I’m sure the homeowners association will totally understand once you explain it’s because you’re hoping to attract a Lark Bunting.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.