Elegant southerners to watch for
Though it’s April, spring can be tough to catch sight of around here. One day, the sun is out, early bees are buzzing, and Tree Swallows are swarming the nest boxes. Then the next seven days are cold and windy and spring retreats like the head of a nervous turtle. I caught a little glimpse of spring at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary on Monday, complete with native bees and even some early butterflies buzzing around, plus the swarming swallows. What I didn’t catch sight of was either of the rare birds people had found at the sanctuary, and few things make me grumpier than when people find rare birds at my place of work, while I’m there, and I don’t see them.
But so it was on Monday when two different people reported a very rare, very non-subtle bird standing in the Wellfleet Bay marshes – an adult White Ibis. I was out and looking at said marshes all afternoon but somehow didn’t see any sign of it. If correct, this would be just the fifth record of this species on the Cape. The original reporters provided no photos or details initially, so people kept asking me if the report was legit. I didn’t know, but by Tuesday morning it was moot – the ibis was there again, word got out, and the birders assembled.
White Ibises are rare treat here, naturally occurring no closer than the coastal Carolinas, but a recent visit to my old stomping grounds in Florida reminded me that they are not always so glamorous there. During my time living in Dade County years ago, I was as likely to see a White Ibis sorting through trash in a county park as foraging in an actual marsh. I prefer to think of them as opportunistic. Their populations there are not what they used to be before the Everglades were largely drained, but there are still some White Ibis breeding colonies of over 20,000 pairs. They mostly eat crayfish and crabs, so I suspect the Wellfleet bird is eating the first of the fiddler crabs to wake up for the year.
The ibis is not the only southerner in town. As happens each April, southerly winds bring premature migrants north, sometimes a month or more ahead of schedule. For example, several Indigo Buntings showed up around the Cape this week, seemingly all males fully in their retina-searingly blue breeding plumage. Some were at feeders, but one was, once again, at my place of work there at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary, photographed by multiple birders between Saturday and Tuesday. I missed that one too. Another birder also found an early White-eyed Vireo at Wellfleet Bay, rounding out the southern surprises.
Elsewhere, other wading birds of lower latitudes have been turning up, mainly Little Blue Herons and Tricolored Herons. Bother species were at Bell’s Neck conservation area in Harwich this week, as well as scattered other locations. “Little blues” are not all that rare, but much less common than the expected herons and egrets. While adult Little Blue Herons are indeed blue, with a reddish head and neck, young birds are mostly white and easy to pass off as a Snowy Egret. Look for their two-toned, blue and black bill, and some splotches of dark blue as they start their molt to adult plumage around now. Tricolored Herons are impossibly skinny and unmistakable with a good look. They used to be known as Louisiana Heron, but as their current name suggests, they’re composed of various glossy shades of blue and red splashed across that super slender body and neck, plus a conspicuous white belly.
Any marsh could be hosting at least one of the elegant wading bird species I profiled today, so keep them in mind on your next outing. An especially good place to find them seems to be right at my office, while I’m there, not seeing them, so you might want to start there…