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The May Finale

White-winged Tern
Frank Vassen
Flickr / bit.ly/3yWkP4X
White-winged Tern

May, already our birdiest month, just went out with a finale for the ages. From truly astounding seabirds to rare southern hawks and shorebirds to late lingering birds of winter, the last week produced a veritable aviary of delights for hardcore birders and backyard enthusiasts alike. As is so often the case, everything hinged on the weather, with warm air from the south and a three-day nor’easter both pushing some hard to believe birds within reach of local lenses.

First, there were the kites; graceful, southern hawks most at home on the wing. Some small number of Mississippi Kites are expected here in late May and early June after southern winds, so it wasn’t so unexpected when one was photographed at Bearberry Hill in Truro last week, though Nick Tepper’s eye level photos of this smart-looking and seldom seen little hawk were superb. Then a flurry of reports of the gracefullest of all the hawks, the Swallow-tailed Kite, including two from Eastham and one from Dennis. Less predictable than Mississippis, the dozen or so Cape records of this essentially South American bird are scattered between March and July.

Next, a Black-necked Stilt, a lanky, formally-attired sandpiper from the south, turned up at Sandy Neck in Barnstable. A crowd of birders followed, all hoping for a look or a frameable photo of this handsome rarity, with its impossibly long red legs and striking black-and-white tuxedo plumage. Nantucket had both the stilt and a Swallow-tailed Kite weeks before the Cape, perhaps sending them along to Cape birders after having their fill.

These were nice, serviceable rare birds, but nothing to hyperventilate about. Then came the Memorial Day weekend storm, timed as if to give struggling and understaffed local businesses one last reprieve before the onslaught. Instead of tourists, it brought an onslaught of offshore seabirds to the lucky, and likely soggy, birders camped out at Race Point in Provincetown. While everyone else googled around to see what indoor activities were currently open to the vaccinated, a coterie of seabird aficionados got themselves out to the ends of the earth, an uncomfortable distance from the nearest shelter for those without an ORV permit.

There, they witnessed a parade of birds from all corners of the globe: Pacific Loons and Red-necked Grebes from western North America; Arctic nesting phalaropes, jaegers and Sabine’s Gull; Sooty Shearwaters from the South Atlantic; Atlantic Puffins in breeding plumage; and numbers of Arctic Terns perhaps unprecedented in Massachusetts – all brought within view of the Race by the strong east winds. But shiniest of them all was a lovely little White-winged Tern, just the third state record for this freshwater tern from the Old World, a bird you’re more likely to see while on safari at a Rift Valley lake than on Cape Cod.

Ah, but the regional rarity parade wasn’t over just yet. While the South Coast typically can’t compete with the Cape when it comes to seabirds, this time it had something we didn’t, and it was by far the best of the late May surprises. Horseneck Beach in Westport produced the first New England record of a Heerman’s Gull, a unique, sooty-colored gull of the West Coast. This individual has been making its way up the east coast since probably January, leaving several first state records in its wake. In fact, the bird hopped from Horseneck to Rhode Island in the same day, giving birders who keep track of such things a thrill in the form of two first state records within an hour of each other.

So what’s next? Who knows. June will have a tough act to follow, but this month is more about enjoying our local breeding birds while we wait for the first southbound migrant shorebirds and songbirds in July. I’ve underestimated this month before. So be ever vigilant – we’re one storm or weird wind event away from tripping over some bird no has ever seen here before, and that, my friends, is why birding is cool.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.