Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
In This Place

Winter's Coming

Mark Faherty
Red-breasted Nuthatch

Just like that, summer on the Cape is over - astronomically, meteorologically, economically, and emotionally. In my weirdly cold part of East Harwich, I’ve already had overnight temps in the 40s, and these relentless north winds seem to be blowing away the remains of this strange season. At the same time, they seem to be blowing in some early and ominous harbingers of winter in feathered form.

For example, last week a single junco showed up at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay sanctuary. This odd loner spent the day on the ground near the bird banding station, like some obstinate, early snowflake that refused to melt. I’ve never seen one at the sanctuary in September, and the earliest I’ve ever seen one at my house is October 26, six weeks later than this individual. Reports of weirdly early and large numbers of juncos and White-throated Sparrows, also typically an October migrant, came in from the north shore over the weekend.

At my house I had my earliest ever Golden-crowned Kinglet on Monday. While a couple of oddballs attempt to breed in planted Norway Spruces in Falmouth each year, these are mostly cold weather birds around here, typically not arriving in numbers until later in the fall. Though tiny, in fact the tiniest songbird in North America, they can somehow winter in cold northern forests where overnight temperatures are often well below zero. This means they can afford to migrate later than many other boreal forest songbirds.

Even the ocean has shown a hint of its winter plumage a bit early. At Race Point in Provincetown, which cornered the market in rare and interesting birds this week, several people saw an early Razorbill, a winter seabird seen more typically from early November onward. But birders barely noticed this seasonal oddity, as they were too busy counting the hundreds of other uncommon seabirds, like Long-tailed Jaegers, Northern Fulmars, Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, Sabine’s and Little Gulls, hundreds of all four shearwaters, and on and on. I reckon most of you are scratching your heads at these obscure species, but believe me, birders are drooling at this list.

More relevant to your backyards, Red-breasted Nuthatches, who breed across the boreal and other coniferous forests, have been irrupting southwards since August. Red-breasted Nuthatches are resident here on the Cape, making it difficult for us to detect their irruptions, but I noticed a clear invasion in my neighborhood a few weeks back, and folks off Cape who don’t typically see them are knee deep in nuthatches right now. They are fleeing failed cone crops and perhaps presaging further irruptions of northern species. Indeed, Purple Finches followed closely behind, and have been moving though in higher than usual numbers, and birders are hoping other boreal birds like Red Crossbills and Redpolls will come later.

So what’s going on with all these early arriving birds of winter? Do they know something we don’t? Is it the La Niña conditions in the Pacific? The wildfires? Covid? The election? Who knows. It may just be that more north winds than usual have brought some birds south a bit early, but that’s a boring explanation. I’m going with the election. These birds know something we don’t. I just hope some of them apply for jobs with the postal service.