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Delightful visitors have arrived on Cape Cod

David Larson

On a frozen morning last week I stopped to sort through ducks at Town Cove in Orleans, a place that accumulates all sorts of waterfowl when other spots start to freeze. I was pleased to see one of my favorite ducks, the uncommon species known simply as Redhead, and figured that would be my morning highlight. Then I noticed a little, pale, bird-like spot in a distant rose thicket and swung my spotting scope to investigate. You could have knocked me over with an extra tiny feather when that pale spot turned out to be a hummingbird happily soaking up the morning sun on this 28 degree January day. The ornithological term for this type of sighting is “super duper weird”. And the weirdness didn’t stop there.

The orange sides told me this was likely a Rufous Hummingbird from the Pacific Northwest, a vagrant, but still the expected species here in winter, oddly enough. I had found one back in October at a nearby community garden, and licensed hummingbird bander Sue Finnegan had banded it and confirmed it as a young female Rufous Hummingbird. That bird disappeared around Halloween, and I figured this sunbathing hummer in Town Cove was her, and that she had just found a new feeder somewhere. It turned out she did, and here’s where it gets weirder – the feeder, at a nearby house, was hosting TWO Rufous Hummingbirds. Sue was able to catch both the previously banded bird and the second bird. Amazingly, the one banded in October had gained significant weight and showed a healthy amount of fat. With supplemental food, hummingbirds can indeed gain weight here in winter.

In other news, the Christmas Bird Count season wrapped up last week with the Truro count bringing up the rear on January 2nd, posting a modest 111 species. Among our local counts, the Mid-Cape won the “most species” cup again with a staggering 141 species tallied by the various field teams, who covered areas from Sandwich to Dennis and from bay to sound back on December 26. That count typically gets the most species of any in New England.

But the most rare species award has to go to the Nantucket count, held back on the 31st, with an all-star cast of birders from around New England finding the count’s first ever Eared Grebe, plus a Painted Bunting, a Western Tanager, a Sedge Wren, and a “Kamchatka” Gull, which is as exotic as it sounds. And that’s just a partial list of the rarities and vagrants – Nantucket is indeed the island of misfit birds. This year’s Nantucket count was held in honor of the count’s co-compiler Edie Ray, a Nantucket birding matriarch and fierce protector of beach-nesting birds, who passed on December 27. Edie, who voiced some bird reports before I somehow got the job, was a treasure and will be sorely missed.

Finally, after an early winter of weird, southerly storms, a proper winter Nor’easter passed over the weekend. This modest gale brought some of the hoped-for seabirds within sight of traditional storm birding locales like First Encounter in Eastham and Corporation Beach in Dennis. Scores of Dovekies, tiny arctic seabirds related to puffins, flew past close to the beach, and an actual puffin even flew by First Encounter – we only ever get them during storms, and then only sparingly. As often happens, some of the little Dovekies ended up grounded in odd places like wood piles and driveways, and several were brought to wildlife rehabilitators. Though they are tough enough to winter at the edge of Arctic pack ice, getting blown over land is their kryptonite.

I didn’t even get to most of the continuing onslaught of unusual birds from the western US like the appropriately named Western Grebe, Western Tanagers, and Western Kingbird all delighting birders in various places on the Cape. So stay tuned for next week’s western edition of the Bird Report, which I will of course record while wearing a ten-gallon hat and spurs.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.