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October magic

Cassin’s Kingbird
Jim Gain
CC BY-NC 2.0
Cassin’s Kingbird

Ah, October! A time of crisp air, whimsical gourds, yellow and red-tinged leaves, and wholly unnecessary amounts of artificial pumpkin flavoring. But, I think we can all agree, it is mainly a time when rare birds from the western U.S. begin to show up here on the Cape and Islands. I suppose that is not so universal a take on October, but hopefully we can at least agree that it’s a time when bird migration transitions from warblers to sparrows, and from shorebirds to ducks and loons. Since their peaks in early September, shorebird and warbler diversity has dwindled to a final few species, while each passing day brings more ducks and sparrows to the area, including those dreaded harbingers of winter for backyard birders everywhere, Dark-eyed Juncos.

But, to my first point, ‘tis indeed the season for western rarities, including several vagrant species of flycatcher, all of which are gray and yellow lookalikes of each other. A Western Kingbird was at Aquinnah on Monday, but the best find so far was a Cassin’s Kingbird found by Simon Perkins and Dick Veit out on Tuckernuck, that remote bird mecca off the west end of Nantucket. While the similar Western Kingbird is what I would call an “expected rarity,” sometimes showing up in twos and threes in fall, Cassin’s Kingbird has only ever been identified four times in Massachusetts. Under normal circumstances, you would find them from Arizona to Southern Mexico.

To give you an idea of how rare a find this was, the last Cape and Islands record was in 1962, at the Eastham Town Hall, and that bird was shot to confirm the identification, as they still did in that era. Try to imagine someone today blasting some songbird with a shotgun at your local town hall. These days, an army of birders with digital cameras and microphones have replaced the shotgun in the effort to identify tricky species.

Rare warblers are also on the menu right now — we’re already on our second Black-throated Gray Warbler, a smart looking songbird of the Pacific northwest. The first was photographed at Sandy Neck in Barnstable last month, and another was along Nauset Beach this week. This species has the somber overall coloration of a chickadee, but with the barest minimum allotment of warblery color in the form of a tiny yellow spot by the eye. The overall effect is distinctive enough to render this warbler easy to identify, in contrast with many of the vaguely yellow and gray confusing fall warblers we typically have to sort through around here.

Each passing cold front escorts a few more catbirds out and a few more juncos in. For example, once the rain cleared on Saturday, following the previous night’s north winds, my neighborhood was full of new arrivals, including a flock of 12 bluebirds, tons of goldfinches, my first Juncos and White-throated Sparrows, and a lovely Cape May Warbler. By the next day all seemed to be gone, but so it goes in this time of transition.

To cash in on the bounty of October, your best bet is to head to a weedy, sunny place. A messy farm by a saltmarsh, a community garden, or some dune thickets are all great places to find the birds of October. A community garden near me has consistently been hosting uncommon birds like Dickcissel, Blue-Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, and Lincoln’s Sparrows lately. Look for unkempt patches of food plants like ragweed and foxtail grass as well as fruiting plants like pokeweed and Virginia creeper. And any bay or ocean viewpoint will give you a chance to see sea ducks and loons from here on out. So grab yourself some god awful pumpkin spice something or other, or don’t, and get yourself out there to enjoy the birdy bounty of October.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.