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The fabulous mid-May visitors are here

Scarlet Tanager
Mark Faherty
Scarlet Tanager

So this is it. The biggest week in the birding calendar. The week when, as far as topics go, I have 50 rare birds to pick from, a hundred interesting happenings in backyard breeding bird biology to discuss, and two dozen charming birding anecdotes to relate. As I’ve noted before, when pressed, I usually say that October is my favorite birding month, but that’s only if you don’t ask me in mid-May.

The migration in spring is very different than the leisurely, almost languid pace of fall migration. In spring, the stakes are much higher, and there’s an intensity and urgency you don’t see in fall. Birds are competing for mates and territories, and a delay could mean they don’t breed that year. This means that a whole lot of birds come through in a very small amount of time, peaking in the second half of May. So is this the peak? It sure seems like it. More than 190 bird species have been seen on the Cape in the last week, including noteworthies like Kentucky Warbler, Summer Tanager, Wilson’s Phalarope, and Red-headed Woodpecker.

Thanks to the frenzied pace of bird migration right now, I was able to achieve a birding maneuver of the highest degree of difficulty on Saturday – while on a non-birding outing with a child, for which I got full parenting credit, I was still able to find and document a rare bird. Achieving this with no meltdowns, despite the finding of said rare bird causing a significant delay in getting a promised ice cream, was no small achievement. If you are a birding parent, you understand what I’m talking about.

Oh, the rare bird was a White-winged Dove, a southwestern species with less than 10 recent records here on Cape Cod. The closest breeding populations are in South Florida and coastal Texas. Most counties in Massachusetts have no records of White-winged Dove, and Beckett and I both saw and heard this one. Around here, the closest you can normally get to hearing a White-winged Dove is if that old Stevie Nicks song comes on the radio.

Back at home, in East Harwich, I have enjoyed some of the visitors I only get in mid-May – two Scarlet Tanagers, a Bay-breasted Warbler or two, and several Magnolia and Blackpoll Warblers. I mostly only hear these birds as they sing from some hidden part of a tall oak. While on a neighborhood walk with my dog, I saw a species I’d never seen in the neighborhood before – a Northern Waterthrush. Normally they’re only found along ponds, this bird was next to my neighbor’s driveway.

Despite the big dad-birding victory and finding some nice birds in the neighborhood, I am nevertheless battling feelings of envy toward other birders this week. It seems like half the birders I know have seen Swallow-tailed and/or Mississippi Kites from their yards this week. These are not rational emotions I’m feeling - it’s absurd to expect to see kites in your yard as these species shouldn’t be here at all. It’s like being mad that you didn’t see an orca on your morning beach walk. But sightings of these graceful southern hawks have become damn near routine here, especially between mid-May and early June.

With all the birds being seen, it’s important to remember that migration isn’t over - some local breeding species, especially various flycatchers, aren’t even in yet, and I suspect there are more unusual birds still in the pipeline. So what I’m saying is, get your birding, or non-birding, butt out there, because this may not have even been the peak week. It may have just have been a peak week sneak peek.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.