© 2024
Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Bird-a-thon

Blackburnian Warbler
Ryan Schain
Blackburnian Warbler

The last week or so has been an odd one in Cape Cod birding. While we were sitting and waiting on the songbird migration floodgates to open, pouring forth warblers, orioles, hummingbirds and such, the bird world came at us from a different direction. First, there was the unprecedented, nearly week-long incursion of little seagoing sandpipers called phalaropes that I reported on last week. Then, right as the phalarope tide was finally receding, an equally unexpected flight of early storm-petrels, both Wilson’s and Leach’s Storm-Petrels, happened over two days last week at Chapin Beach in Dennis. This heady mix of expected but eagerly anticipated arrivals and out-of-left-field ornithological events, is exactly what makes May arguably our best birding month.

And that is why Mass Audubon has chosen this time of year for our annual fundraising birding blitz known as Bird-a-thon. For 24 hours, starting Friday night at 6, birders will be fanning out across the birding hotspots, from Stellwagen Bank to the Berkshires, in search of birding and fundraising glory. Mass Audubon’s several regions strive to field the best birding team they can to outcompete the other regions. A winning region’s team, which can be as many as 75 birders, might collectively tally over 230 species in that 24 hours, believe it or not.

For this fundraiser, we shrewdly harness this insatiable need to bird that we birders all suffer from at this time of year, then turn it into a friendly - usually - competition. There is some amount of skullduggery in the form of stealing birders from other regions – I’ve been both the thief and the victim, depending on the year. Mostly I’ve been the victim in recent years, as the ambitious Metro South team has solidified its stronghold on the first place Brewster Cup. Last year my Cape team came in second, but a distant second – they beat us by a seemingly insurmountable 18 species. I can’t think of where my birders would have found another 18 species last year. Their team should probably be tested for birding enhancing drugs. I’m not sure what those would be – we birders mostly just abuse coffee.

One thing all Bird-a-thoners hope for is a “fallout,” that sublime, fortuitous collision of migration and weather that grounds lots of migrants. In a good fallout, birds are everywhere – tanagers and grosbeaks dripping from the trees, obscure thrushes hopping around on lawns, several species of warbler bathing together in road puddles. Fallouts are rare, and memories of past events are treasured. I dare not predict a fallout but the forecast right now shows at least some promise for Saturday – southwest winds favorable to migration combined with morning rain and fog gives you at least a fighting chance of seeing one of these events.

The biggest such fallout in recent memory was on May 16, 2020, when birder Sean Williams documented 6000 birds of 131 species over just 5 hours of watching by the Provincetown airport – it was the stuff of dreams, and not likely to be repeated anytime soon. Inland locations also have fallouts, which can include normally ocean-going birds putting down on lakes and fields in the Berkshires, so a team captain does well to spread their birders across the state.

Fallout or no fallout, the birding should be good. Warblers, thrushes, and other migrants have been showing up in numbers the last couple of days, including in my own yard, so the hotspots should be suitably hot come Friday and Saturday. Even if the birding is not so great, we birders will be ok with that, because a bad day of birding is better than a good day at the office. Hey, that’s pretty catchy, I can’t believe no one’s thought of that before – I think I’ll put that on a t-shirt!

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.