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Weird and wayward species show up on Cape Cod

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Kevin Friel
Hammond's Flycatcher

With last month’s rare bird sensation, the Vermilion Flycatcher, getting smaller in the rear-view mirror, it seemed like maybe we’d get a break from weird, lost flycatchers around here. Instead, it has only gotten weirder, with similarly rare flycatchers suddenly buzzing around the region like the flies they purport to catch. Falmouth, the Vineyard, and Nantucket have all hosted wayward species from various points on the compass in the last week, including two different species of way-off course flycatchers at a single small field in Falmouth. What’s going on? Are the flycatchers trying to tell us something? Is it global warming? The collapse of western democracy? Let’s see if we can figure it out together.

Last Thursday, at the famous Gay Head cliffs of Aquinnah, Cape birder M.J Foti noticed an odd, robin-sized bird perched atop a dead tree by the lighthouse, something that didn’t compute for the time of year. This big-billed bird turned out to be a Gray Kingbird, a flycatcher common only in the Caribbean. Though this was only the fourth record for Massachusetts, it was, amazingly, the second for the Gay Head cliffs – the state’s first Gray Kingbird was seen here back in 2006. The cliffs are mostly a place to see birds in transition, more of a Grand Central station than an actual destination, and true to form, this kingbird has moved on – two days later, probably the same Gray Kingbird turned up 50 miles west at a different lighthouse, this one in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, so the bird is apparently continuing its tour of the lighthouses of New England.

A few weeks back I mentioned in passing another kingbird, a Cassin’s Kingbird that was found on Tuckernuck, a seeming one-day wonder. This southwestern species of big, gray and yellow flycatcher has now, like Gray Kingbird and Vermilion Flycatcher, only been seen in Massachusetts four times. Nantucket birders Chris Duffy and Burton Balkind combined to rediscover the Cassin’s Kingbird the other day, but only for a bit before it disappeared again.

But the marquee flycatcher this week was the little gray and olive sprite of a bird that’s been very cooperative at a small sheep farm and conservation area in Falmouth, Peterson Farm. Found by Greg Hirth and identified, with difficulty, by Mike Tucker and others, it’s a Hammond’s Flycatcher. Somehow everywhere else in the listening area has a past record for this species, including Fairhaven, Nantucket, and the Vineyard, but this was the first ever Cape sighting.

Hammond’s Flycatcher is tiny, drab, and poorly understood. They nest high in conifers in extensive, mature evergreen forests in the mountainous west as far north as northern Alaska. In winter, they disappear into similar high elevation habitats in Mexico and Central America. The species was named, oddly, for a Civil War surgeon general rather than an ornithologist. Hammond was a pretty terrible guy, to put it mildly, even by 19th century standards, so I suspect this flycatcher will have a different name eventually. The ornithological community is rightly working to replace honorific bird names, in large part to eliminate the ones honoring really bad people.

But let’s get back to the original question, what exactly is behind all these out-of-range flycatcher appearances? It doesn’t add up. That’s why, like an X-Files-era conspiracy theorist, I now have a map on the wall of my bedroom crisscrossed with string and dotted with pushpins and newspaper clippings related to rare flycatchers, while I, wild-haired and bug-eyed, hug my knees and rock back in forth in the corner. Let’s see — four rare flycatchers, one on the Vineyard, two of them kingbirds, both 4th state records — hmm, a president serves 4 years, a king is like a president, Obama was the 44th president, Obama vacations on the Vineyard. That’s it! Actually, I still have no idea. I’ll readjust my tinfoil hat and get back to you next week — these flycatchers are definitely up to something…

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.