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The sneaky migrants of August are here

Ryan Schain

After a month of hard-to-believe bird discoveries, I’m almost happy to report that not much happened in the last week. A small amount of an unfamiliar, wet substance fell from the sky at one point, confusing birds and people alike. Besides that, things were quiet. Or were they? In reality, August is a busy time of not-so-obvious comings and goings in the bird world. For many species of forests, in particular, late August is a time of quiet migration, a subtle prelude to the higher volumes of birds we’ll see in September and October. Now, silent birds slip in and out, daring you to find them. Some may give occasional call notes, announcing themselves to those birders keen enough to recognize chip notes, but remaining anonymous to most.

A good example of this silent migration is the Ovenbird I’ve seen twice in my yard this past week. While a common and vocal breeding species in our bigger patches of forest, I know none breed in the vicinity of my yard, so this visitor is clearly a transient. I don’t know if it came from a mile or 400 miles away, but it didn’t breed in my neighborhood. It hasn’t made a sound – I was lucky to see it both times that I did, as earth-toned Ovenbirds mostly just walk quietly and invisibly about in the leaf litter.

The same goes for the Northern Waterthrush we see each July and August at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary. None of these skulking, swamp-loving warblers breed on the Cape, so these birds could have come from northern Quebec, stopping in Wellfleet for a bit on their way to winter in some mangrove swamp in coastal Columbia. Since they mostly stay hidden in dense wetlands, I would never know they were there if they didn’t offer a sharp chip call every so often. Any of the other migrant warblers, those produced in the rich forests to our north and west, could be passing through from here on out, like the lovely Canada Warblers seen recently in Mashpee and Manomet.

It’s not just little birds stealing their way south in August. I’ve seen a few Broad-winged Hawks in early movements over my house this past week and others were reported from places where they could only be migrants, like the dunes of Provincetown. The local breeders of this smaller, woodsier relative of Red-tailed Hawks tend to sneak away around this time, and I would have missed these if one high soaring individual hadn’t been vocal, repeatedly offering their classic, high-pitched whistle. Broad-wings and other birds of prey tend to be like Mike Tyson in that they are relatively big and tough but with surprisingly high, not so intimidating voices. I trust Mike Tyson doesn’t listen to the weekly bird report.

Brown Pelican
Mark Faherty
Brown Pelican

A not-so-subtle bird is the poor Brown Pelican that’s been around since at least July. This quite rare bird, one that was eclipsed by much more significant finds in this space, hasn’t been reported this week. After first appearing on Nantucket in late July, it had been seen on the bay from Eastham to Provincetown for a while, and even made it into the Cape Cod Times, but I never got to report on it. It could easily still be out there, and would be hard to miss, so in the course of your boating and beaching, be on the lookout for an enormous brown bird that looks like its bill can hold more than its belly can.

Even if you don’t find that pelican, shorebird and seabird season of course rages on, so get yourself out to beaches to witness what may be our finest birding hour here on the archipelago. Those migrations are obvious and out in the open, the birds just waiting for you to come look. But in yards, woods, and swamps, be aware that a more subtle migration is already underway. So check those chickadee flocks, and look twice at the forest floor — the sneaky migrants of August are there, hoping you won’t notice.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.