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Bird activity to look for in July

Swallow-tailed Kite
Mark Faherty
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Swallow-tailed Kite

As we get into the meat of mid-summer, bird activity begins to shift. Some songbirds go missing or quiet after fledging their chicks, others slip silently back to Central America. The few ducks we have in breeding season go incognito while they molt their wing feathers, perhaps remaining flightless for a full month in summer. Most Piping Plovers are still wrangling chicks for another few weeks, but many are already heading south. So are the Arctic nesting shorebirds, various sandpipers and plovers done breeding and now arriving at our beaches from points north. These comings and goings form the regular rhythm of the birding year. But you can always count on a few birds to get off beat, like some of the birds I’ll talk about this week.

A lot of off-Cape birders visit fall through spring, then become allergic to the Cape when traffic season starts — the idea of making it out to the tip is just too daunting, with those two one-lane bottlenecks choked with beach-bound vacationers. But a Pacific Loon apparently summering on East Harbor, formerly known as Pilgrim Lake in North Truro, has convinced many to hazard the trip. Normally they’re only present in winter, and then only one or two, and those one or two will exclusively be at the far reaches of Race Point, two soft, sandy miles from the nearest parking lot. So this unseasonal and accessible Pacific Loon, only the second summer record for the region, is attracting a lot of birders.

Completing the “Christmas in July” theme is another bird of winter, a King Eider photographed off the main parking lot at Nauset Beach last week. It’s the first summer record of this scarce winter visitor, at least in modern times. Even in winter most King Eiders stay well north of here, at the edge of sea ice. It was keeping company with scoters, fellow winter ducks that didn’t make it back to the tundra to breed for some reason or another. A breeding male King Eider is an absurdly colorful bird — colors include powder blue, lime green, a glowing orange, and crimson, and that’s just the face. But the Nauset bird is a kind of a ratty young male with none of the colors of an adult — probably still wears a retainer and is scared to talk to girls, so he never went north to breed.

Swinging around to the south side of the lost bird compass rose we have the Swallow-tailed Kite — one seems to be lingering on the Cape for the summer, rather than in south Florida where it belongs. People have photographed or described one of these lanky and primarily tropical hawks, by far our most graceful avian predator, from Sandwich to Harwich in the last couple of weeks. The word unmistakable gets thrown around a lot in written bird descriptions, perhaps based on an overestimation of human visual cognition, but if to no other species, this word applies to the Swallow-tailed Kite. It’s big, black and white, and pointy in all directions, a hawk shaped more like a sea star.

I know most don’t care much for the rarities, waifs, and weirdoes I tend to focus on, and I should probably talk more about egrets and orioles. But I can’t shake this obsession with the unusual or the unprecedented. It’s why I’m out trying to find bees no one’s documented on the Cape as well as birds. It’s a big part of how I like to celebrate biodiversity. Whether you love to chase a rare bird or just want to enjoy the Great Blue Herons in your local marsh, you’re in the right place — that’s the great thing about the Cape and Islands. But those bridges and one-lane traffic bottlenecks are not a great thing about the Cape, so however you choose to pursue your summer birding, you should pursue it early. If you do get caught in traffic, at least you’ll have plenty of time to look up and maybe score yourself one of those pointy in all directions Swallow-tailed Kites, which will probably cause you to hit the car in front of you. Sorry about that — also, the Weekly Bird Report assumes no responsibility for birding-related traffic accidents.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.