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October birding on Cape Cod: Grab a coat and take it all in

Ruby-crowned kinglet
Wendy Miller / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Ruby-crowned kinglet

Now that we’re past the halfway point here in October, it’s time for donning your fleece vest, clasping your hands ‘round your warm pumpkin spice latte, as leaves crunch beneath your feet on a crisp morning, at least according to all the fall-themed tv commercials. But here on the Cape and Islands, it’s, as always, time for serious birding. Serving as a bridge between late summer migration and the arrival of our wintering birds, October may be the best birding month we have. This month of earth-toned, gourd-oriented clichés maintains a statistical tie for top species honors with May at 334 bird species recorded all-time.

Rare species are expected in October, to the extent that is not an oxymoron, such as the super scarce Bell’s Vireo that’s been playing hide-and-seek with hopeful birders this week at Fort Hill in Eastham, only occasionally giving a few nasal calls as a hint. This species — drab, nondescript, and shy in all seasons — has been recorded very few times in Massachusetts, except in this one thicket near the Captain Penniman House at Fort Hill, where it has been almost annual since 2015. This raises the possibility that it’s the same bird returning annually, and if so it’s getting long in the tooth for a songbird — the oldest recorded Bell’s Vireo was 9 years old.

When it comes to songbird migration, October is the month of sparrows — look for them in weedy, sunny fields, community gardens, thickets, and pretty much anywhere else. That sooty-colored harbinger of winter, the Dark-eyed Junco, arrived on schedule in early October — I saw my first on the 6th. These winter sparrows are not so common here as they are on the mainland, which makes me appreciate them ever the more. Listen for the chip calls or more conversational chirps of the flocks in your neighborhood — I’ve been hearing them more than seeing them so far.

While most warblers, thrushes, tanagers, and other long-distance migrants have already passed through by mid-October, two of our smallest and most charming songbirds wait until now to start migrating in earnest. Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets are tiny and flitty but tough little creatures who can handle the cold. Listen for their very different calls, quick doubled notes for Ruby-crowned, and impossibly high-pitched triplets for Golden-crowned, just about anywhere — a Ruby-crowned was in the rhododendron outside my window earlier today.

Waterbird migration gets to a pattering start in September before really taking flight right around now — ducks of both sea and pond will be increasing daily from here on out. Buffleheads, those charming little toy ducks who winter on essentially every body of water we have, just began migrating into New England over the last few days — I saw my first of the year in Southern Maine on Monday and I expect them to be reaching the Cape any second. On salt water, all manner of sea ducks, grebes, and both Common and Red-throated Loons will be on the increase from here on out, livening up the view from many beaches.

So in this time of crisp air and even crisper leaves, I hope you’ll don that cozy fleece vest and find your way to a weedy field or wind-swept beach somewhere to take it all in. As for me, I’ll pass on the pumpkin spice latte, thank you, but I will have another steaming cup of fall bird migration...

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.