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Firsts and Weirdo Birds

Michael Janke

Late April is a heady time in birding – when it comes to spring migration, everything is either happening or just about to happen, or in some case, has never happened before. We’ll get to that last category in a bit, but first, some birds that are arriving right on schedule to warm the birdy hearts of people hungry for signs of spring.

Perhaps the most anticipated April arrival is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and at least six have been reported on the Cape already, one way back on the 12th. Others have been reported as far north as central Maine and Novia Scotia, so there’s no excuse – it’s time to get your feeder out. As nurseries get stocked up, consider adding some hummingbird favorite native plants like eastern red columbine, coral honeysuckle, scarlet beebalm, and, if you feel lucky, cardinal flower – I’ve not had much luck with it. All of these co-evolved with, and in some cases are exclusively pollinated by, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. I have a feeder, too, but nothing beats attracting and feeding them through your own home horticultural hard work.

I often look around and wonder what the April-arriving hummingbirds were eating before there were feeders – not much is blooming right now that looks like a typical hummingbird flower. I suspect insects form the lion’s share of the diet in spring, and we know they can take tree sap from wells made by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. We also know that the most important plants for native bees in April are the early flowering trees like red maple and pussy willow, and hummingbirds may be able to use them as well.

The first trickle of warblers and other neotropical migrants has also begun, a hint of the flood to come, with Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula, and Northern Waterthrush already reported, along with at least one Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Birders are already stalking the Beech Forest in Provincetown – with our trees still far from leaf-out, this is a great time to get a clear look at these often hard-to-spot little gems.

Part of the fun of April is that it often brings surprises in the form of birds deposited far from home by various weather events. At the fringes of and just beyond our listening area, a couple of truly remarkable birds have appeared in the last few weeks, each arriving from far flung locations in completely opposite directions, highlighting just how exciting and unpredictable a month April can be. In North Plymouth, a big, mysterious grackle, clearly not our expected Common Grackle, was found singing away back on the 9th. It was quickly determined to be the first record of Great-tailed Grackle on the entire US East Coast. This species is more typical from Texas south, and one you’ve seen and heard if you’ve ever hung out in the central square of a Mexican or Central American town – this is not a subtle species.

If grackles aren’t your thing, and they probably aren’t, you might be more impressed that the state’s first ever record of European Golden-Plover was discovered at Duxbury Beach back on the 13th. This gives the locals a second species of plover to complain about as birders crowded the parking lots and the narrow barrier beach.

These extreme rarities just missed us on the Cape and Islands, but the unsettled weather that likely brought them here could have brought other things we’ve yet to discover, so look sharp out there. Because, as they always say, April showers bring wicked rare birds. Or is it “March goes in like a lion and out like a rare bird” – I can never remember.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.