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In This Place

Seeking Out the Late-March Bird Arrivals

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Mark Faherty
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Laughing Gull

The latter half of March is that time in the birding calendar when the excitement over those first late-winter migrants fades a bit. Grackles only get you so far, emotionally, before you realize that May is a long, muddy trudge away. We know that the first Ospreys, oystercatchers, and Piping Plovers have arrived, but what else has late March got for us?

Not much, it turns out, but not nothing, either. The first elegant Great Egrets often arrive around now, startlingly big and white against some still dead marsh grass. Sure enough, the first was reported this week in West Harwich. Once scarce north of New Jersey, for decades these historically southern waders have been slowly increasing as nesters in Massachusetts. Locally, a few nest among other wading birds at Monomoy and on Nantucket. Considering they were nearly exterminated in the 19th century to make ladies hats, it’s worth taking a minute to appreciate that first egret of spring.

The first Tree Swallows may also appear on any warm day from here on out. Unlike in late summer and fall, when they may gather here in enormous, swirling flocks of many thousands and linger over a period of many weeks, their spring arrival is subtle and quick. I usually hear their liquidy calls overhead before I see them circling nest boxes or poking their little faces out of the holes. Your first good look at a perched Tree Swallow in proper light can be startling, but before you can decide whether that shimmering plumage is blue or green, they’re gone – these aerialists don’t like to sit still when there are flying insects to be caught.

Another hardy insectivore, the Eastern Phoebe, is quietly increasing with each passing day, two and a half months earlier than some of their fellow flycatcher species. Listen for their eponymous call in your neighborhood, where they might eventually nest on a shed or back porch light of someone’s lightly used seasonal house. What they lack in traditional avian beauty they make up for in charm - their confiding habits and wagging tails give them an almost canine quality. You can make them a nesting shelf in hopes of attracting a pair of your own. Look for plans online, such as on Cornell’s Project NestWatch site. It looks more like a bus stop than bird house, sort of like a bluebird house with no front and a bigger floor, and it also works for those other makers of mud nests, Barn Swallows and robins.

At the beaches, Laughing Gulls will be chuckling their way back into town any day now, providing a much-needed sound of summer. While most gulls consider the Cape a five-star winter resort, with fourteen species having been recorded in that season, Laughing Gulls prefer it warm and so get out of town. Some really get out of town, going as far as Brazil. By June these jesters of the beach will be packed a few thousand strong into their nesting colony at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, the island echoing with a raucous laugh track that would make a 1980s sitcom producer blush.

I won’t pretend that March is my favorite birding month – it took some agonizing to come up with the birds I covered today. But with 229 species having been recorded on the Cape in March over the years, it’s not a month to be laughed at, either. Unless you’re a Laughing Gull, I suppose, in which case pretty much everything is to be laughed at.