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In This Place

Mid-May Is Best for Birding

Mark Faherty
Scarlet Tanager

When you wake up before everyone else in the house because a Scarlet Tanager is singing outside, it’s a good indication that you’re a birder. And also that it’s mid-May. I often sing the praises of September and October, the favorite months of many a year-round Cape Codder and birder. But I hereby acknowledge that May is best. The return of so many birds, fully breeding plumed and in full-throated song, is like an Espresso jolt to the soul after a bleak, sleepy winter. Over the years, at least 334 species have been recorded in Barnstable County during the month of May, according to the eBird database. You won’t see them all, of course, but the possibility is intoxicating.

Back to my Scarlet Tanager, or actually tanagers. It turned out there were two – at one point a silent male appeared in my front corner oak while my original wake-up-call male sang in the back. If you haven’t heard one, they sound like a buzzy robin. It took a while, but he eventually posed for some photos, which you can see on the website. Everyone loves a Scarlet Tanager, partly because you don’t see them much, and partly because of that red, that fiery, retina-searing red. They are related to another good looking and more familiar all-red bird – the cardinal. A cardinal is clearly a fine-looking bird – don’t get me wrong. But while males of both species can accurately be described as red and black, a cardinal seems unambitiously red in comparison – the tanager just burns brighter.

Over the last week, a surprising number of folks have been reporting another rare beauty for the backyard, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. These tricolored stunners – at least the males are – don’t seem to breed on Cape, preferring richer woods than we offer here on these sandbars. Unlike a lot of the flashy spring pass-through migrants, this species will park themselves at your standard sunflower seed feeder, so backyard birders have a fighting chance. I rarely encounter them here, but I at least heard one in Brewster the other other day. I love their melancholy little song, which hits my ear like a sweet, somewhat sad robin. Lots of bird songs get compared to robins, if you hadn’t noticed – it pays to learn what robins sound like.

Mid-May demands forays beyond the backyard, so let’s venture forth a bit. This past weekend was Mass Audubon’s annual Bird-a-thon, where we harness the collective madness of hundreds of birders to achieve birding and fundraising glory. As we do every year, my brother and I birded the Town of Plymouth on behalf of Team Wellfleet Bay, finding 134 species in 24 hours. We enjoy every second of it, but one moment stood out. As we ticked off our target Bald Eagle near a known nesting area, a gorgeous wooded lake, in quick succession we had a rare-for-Plymouth Purple Martin fly over, followed by a loudly calling Barred Owl a short distance away. We’ve tried unsuccessfully for years to hear one at this spot, and here was one casually belting out their classic call in broad daylight.

But it was another of our teammates, Peter Trimble, who truly achieved birding glory this Bird-a-thon. Near Race Point on Saturday morning, with birders swirling all around, he saw an astounding bird that no one else had noticed – an odd yellow and gray flycatcher that turned out to be a Tropical Kingbird. This was just the second Cape and Islands record for this species, and perhaps the fifth for Massachusetts. If you’ve ever birded the New World tropics, Tropical Kingbird is often among the first few species on your trip list, sometimes before you’ve gotten off the plane – they’re an extremely common roadside and airport bird throughout Central and South America. The local birding guides are typically asked 50 times a day to identify one, so they just call them TK’s to save time.

The Provincetown bird was not seen again after Saturday morning, so you may have to book a flight to get your life “TK”. But that’s ok, because it’s May, and there’s lots else to see, though as for me, I’ve run out of things to say.