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Rarity roundup: cemeteries and beyond

Yellow-headed Blackbird
Mark Faherty
Yellow-headed Blackbird

In the days leading up to Halloween, if you drove down Rt 6 in Truro, you may have noticed a lot of birders hanging out in a cemetery. This is the Old North Cemetery, one of those spooky 18th century New England ones where everyone has names like Zedediah and probably died of “consumption”. Were these birders just getting into the spirit of the season? Perhaps staging a dramatic reading of The Raven? No, they were actually, as birders do, birding. Because the Old North Cemetery was hosting the rare bird du jour, a Yellow-headed Blackbird. And because cemeteries, it turns out, are pretty good for birds.

This Yellow-headed Blackbird was a female, so not as striking as the namesake males. She had more of a yellow face and throat, but that’s enough that she stood out in the flock of all dark cowbirds and starlings she was keeping company with. Yellow-headed Blackbirds breed in western wetlands and winter in Mexico, but a few stray east – the Cape and Islands have at least a few dozen records in recent decades. To find one, look for a flash of yellow in one of those roving blackbird and starling flocks that are around this time of year, often in medians right next to busy roads. The first person to see this one in Truro saw it sitting on a utility wire right over Rt 6. A good birder knows how to scan for birds while also maintaining proper attention to driving, or so we like to think.

As often happens when birders converge on a spot, it turned out there was another rare bird there skulking between the gravestones, a Lark Sparrow hanging with Chipping Sparrows. Yet another western species with a penchant for wandering east, several have turned up in the last week at places like both Nantucket and Harwich Community Gardens and Cape Cod Organic Farm in Barnstable. These are big, handsome sparrows with a black and chestnut head pattern and a central breast spot, plus an especially lovely song.

Back in October of 2017, the Old North Cemetery hosted another rarity that all the birders chased, that time it was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher that flew the wrong way from maybe Texas or Oklahoma. There’s nothing about this cemetery that tells me why rare and lost birds end up there – there’s no water, and it’s not particularly big or exotically landscaped, like some of the more famous birding cemeteries, namely Mt Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Maybe birds just like a creepy old “bare bones” cemetery for some reason.

The hits didn’t stop with the cemetery - some birders chasing that blackbird continued a little further north to High Head, which has hosted as many lost birds as just about anywhere on the Cape. Sure enough, before they had pulled all the way off Rt 6 onto High Head Road they noticed a flycatcher, and it turned out to be an Ash-throated Flycatcher, a rare visitor from, you guessed it, out west. Fitting the profile of so many of the rare birds we get, they breed west of the great plains and winter in Mexico. Ash-throated Flycatchers look like their cousin the Great-crested Flycatcher, which you should know since they are a common breeder here, but like one that’s been through the wash too many times, smaller and faded. No one has found that bird again, as far as I know, as it disappeared into the vast thickets around East Harbor.

I didn’t even get a chance to talk about the Purple Gallinules, gaudy marsh birds mainly from the Florida Everglades, that were found walking around suburban yards like chickens in Orleans and Nantucket this week, or the little Sedge Wren turning birder heads on the Vineyard. So it goes in fall rarity season, I have more birds than time. As for you, maybe you should check out the birds in a local cemetery on this All Saint’s Day, if you are so inclined – you may find the birding livelier than expected.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.