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Birds of Christmas present(s)

Western kingbird
Mark Faherty
Western kingbird

While this is the season of Christmas Bird Counts, wherein highly trained hit squads of birders comb all the birdy hotspots and seldom visited back roads of the Cape and beyond, it is not correct to think of one of these counts as a complete census. We do our best to count every chickadee and Herring Gull, but it’s obviously not possible to see every bird, and often some pretty good ones slip through the cracks. That’s exactly what happened in Eastham this week, where just one spot hosted an enviable variety of out-of-range birds that brought the birders flocking. And none of these birds had been seen on the Christmas Bird Count conducted less than a week before.

On Friday of last week, as I was dutifully heading to the office, I saw something that caused me to be, let’s say, “detained.” It was one of those things you notice as a birder that makes you stop and look around — in this case a flock of birds at the edge of a big grassy area that included at least one Pine Warbler. This was at the Cape Cod National Seashore’s Salt Pond Visitors Center in Eastham, a place that’s hosted many an interesting bird. And so I stopped.

I parked and quickly armed myself with binoculars and camera. I noticed a good-sized flock of goldfinches across the road eating juniper berries plus some bluebirds and sparrows scattered around. In front of me, a bird popped out of the grass and into a tree next to the parking lot. The size and shape didn’t match any expected species, and when I raised my binoculars, it turned out to be a Lark Sparrow, a big, attractive western species, and one no one saw on the Christmas Bird Count several days before. I quickly secured some photos before the bird flew off. Amazingly, on this shortest day of the year, hundreds of miles from the breeding range, the bird began to sing continuously from the edge of the big grassy area in front of the visitor’s center. I haven’t heard a Lark Sparrow’s lovely song since I lived in Arizona almost 25 years ago.

After a few minutes, I followed the sparrow across the street, where a few bluebirds, flickers, and other common birds were milling about the grounds of the historical society. Soon I noted something yellow, which is almost always good at this point in the winter, and sure enough, it was a Western Kingbird, another rare species no one found on the Christmas Count, and one of just two known to be in New England right now. These bright yellow-bellied counterparts to our locally breeding Eastern Kingbirds would not normally get closer than the Dakotas, and most winter in southern Mexico or Central America, but they’re prone to wander east in winter for some reason.

Word got out and more birders were quickly on the scene. More eyes turned up an Eastern Phoebe the following day, not astounding but always rare in December. On Christmas morning, birder Keegan Burke was hoping to unwrap a Western Kingbird after two previously unsuccessful tries. He found the kingbird, but noticed another bright yellow spot in the tree with the kingbird – a bonus Yellow-throated Warbler. Despite the pedestrian name, this was the rarest of them all. We sometimes see these stunning southern warblers when they overshoot their breeding grounds in April and May, but there are only a few winter records on the Cape and Islands, all previously in Orleans, oddly.

It seems the Patagonia Picnic Table effect is in full, uh, effect here on the Cape right now. Named after a nondescript spot in Arizona where the discovery of one rare bird spawned a series of other rare bird finds as more people visited, this phenomenon is well known among birders. So get yourself to the Salt Pond visitors center before the next odd bird is discovered – maybe you’ll be there when the inevitable Blue-footed Booby flies by.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.