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In This Place

March bird arrivals

Prothonotary Warbler from Mashpee
Mike Tucker
Prothonotary Warbler from Mashpee

Like most people I like to complain about March, which we will thankfully put behind us in a few days. It’s not just the measurable snow and daytime highs in the 20s more than a week into astronomical “spring,” it can also be a dull time for birding. But there are some underrated first spring arrivals that show up in March, not to mention a surprising potential for some very lost southern birds to get blown in, like a couple of the birds I’m talking about this week.

In the expected arrivals department, we got the first few Tree Swallows, American Oystercatchers, and Great and Snowy Egrets right on schedule this week, and Black-crowned Night-Herons are teeing up once again at the herring run ponds. A few Laughing Gulls are back, too, but these are like the grackles of the beaches – the first few sightings of the year give you hope that spring is progressing, then almost immediately they seem ubiquitous and a little too loud – what are they laughing at, anyway. Not so Eastern Phoebes, who arrived en masse this week – as far as I’m concerned, these charming, hardy flycatchers could sing their eponymous song at me all day.

Among the scheduled arrivals there are usually a few unexpected treats. Like last Friday, when a few birders got one of those close experiences with a rare and beautiful bird that raises the pulse rate and almost justifies all those early mornings ticking off chickadees and Mallards. Along the road to South Cape Beach State Park in Mashpee, Mike Tucker noticed a searing bit of yellow against the dull brown landscape. Turns out it was produced by one of my favorite birds, a Prothonotary Warbler, a bird rare in time and space. That means it’s very early to see one, plus they shouldn’t ever be this far north, even in warmer weather – these are warblers of southern swamps. Yet another Prothonotary turned up in a yard on Nantucket a few days later, photographed as it glumly contemplated a long-dead potted plant on their deck.

It turned out these weren’t the only southerners about. Over the weekend a birder in Centerville noticed some big birds overhead while doing some yard cleanup. One was a Herring Gull – yawn – and the next was a Red-tailed Hawk. But the third turned out to be a doozy – the deeply forked tail, white head, black back, and pointed wings said Swallow-tailed Kite, a bird mostly of South and Central America, but also Florida up as far as South Carolina. Why a bird that could be in Florida right now would work so hard to get up here to this weather is beyond me. I suspect he won’t do it twice.

You’re not likely to have a Swallow-tailed Kite fly over your house at any time of year, let alone March, but sometimes there is more going on in your own neighborhood than you realize. I recently had one of those “zip-a-dee-doo-da” experiences just outside my back door. I stepped outside to dump the compost around 11 p.m., and noticed it was one of those rare, completely still nights. First I heard an American Woodcock “peenting” a few houses down, something I hadn’t heard before in six years at this house.

screech owl
Mark Faherty
The screech owl in Mark's backyard

Next, two Great Horned Owls were duetting, then a distant Eastern Screech-Owl whinnied faintly. A few seconds later, a pack of coyotes sounded off up the powerlines a bit. When my wife came out to hear the woodcock and owls, she startled a raccoon, who shimmied up the tree over the deck. As we wandered out to the back of the yard, our flashlight beam revealed a silent, confiding screech-owl sitting chest-high in one of our trees. Yes, we had ourselves quite the suburban safari over that few minutes of standing in our own yard. And I’ll give you one guess which of those critters founds its way into our trash can the next night. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the woodcock.