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The Peakest of Peak

Mark Faherty
Yellow-headed Blackbird

It seems like I say this several times a year, but right now is the peak-est of the peak of the birding year here on the Cape and lslands. And I really mean it this time. 

Because, while this is past peak for many migrating shorebirds and songbirds, all of those species are nevertheless still possible thanks to the tendency of this peninsula to collect and keep birds over the course of the fall. This is why some folks are still seeing hummingbirds, and why a few Baltimore Orioles will be possible through the winter. With falcons and hawks streaking through, songbirds pouring in, and waterfowl just getting started, October is where it’s at in the birding calendar.

Thanks to the wondrous research tool that is Cornell’s eBird, with just a few clicks I now know that 330 bird species have been recorded on the Cape in October. That’s more than any other month except May, which at 334 is a statistical tie, whatever that means. The species tally for July is a mere 279, that’s 55 fewer than October, and less even than December, which comes in at a surprising 286 species. I guess summer is better for the Cape’s economy than for its bird diversity.

This week’s rare bird reports provide case in point for the birding potential of October, as well as a brief tour of some of the region’s best fall birding spots. We begin with the perennial heavyweight Race Point in Provincetown, where it seems any bird of the western hemisphere might fly in and land on the beach. This week, a South Polar Skua headlined a hefty slate of rarities. This beast of a seabird is usually the biggest bully on the water, but this skua was being hectored by a much smaller Parasitic Jaeger, as seen in some excellent photographs of the pair by Peter Flood. With other sightings including an almost unheard of total 18 Caspian Terns, 250 Forster’s Terns, plus four kinds of shearwaters, some uncommon seagoing sandpipers known as phalaropes, and on and on, it’s hard to overstate the exciting birding offered by the place known as “the Race”.

If scores of songbirds tucked into cozy hedgerows and seed-rich weedy fields is more your speed, get yourself to your local community garden or the nearest farm. Cape Cod Organic Farm in Barnstable hosted some doozies this week, the best of which was a truly rare Bell’s Vireo, one of just a handful of records for the region of this subtly colored western songbird. Throw in a very uncommon Lark Sparrow and some classic weedy field fall favorites like Lincoln’s Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, and Dickcissel, and you’ve got some good reasons to head to the farm.

The last great fall birding hotspot I’ll mention is the one I talk about the most – your backyard. On Monday, a North Truro listener had a flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds clamoring for seed he’d scattered on his back deck when he noticed an unexpected flash of yellow. It turned out to be the business end of a female Yellow-headed Blackbird, a bona-fide good find not normally seen this side of the western prairies, and one of less than 20 Outer Cape records.

May has a few more species and they’re sporting more colorful plumages, but year-rounders, birders, and savvy travelers all know the weather is better now, and fall is the shoulder season of choice. So avoid the colder shoulder, and do your birding in October. (Note to chamber of commerce – you can use that in a brochure, but I don’t work cheap).

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.