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Let's talk about that flood of spring overshoot migrants

Summer Tanager
Mark Faherty
Summer Tanager

You may have noticed an odd celestial event recently, something seldom seen in these parts. The eerie light had people and wildlife staring at the sky in confusion and traveling to places they don’t normally go. If you think I’m talking about that overhyped thing with the sun and moon last week, I’m not — I’m of course talking about this surprisingly sunny spring weather and all the interesting birds it brought to the region. Over the last week, we’ve experienced a flood of spring overshoot migrants.

The first hummingbird was reported on the Cape, as expected for mid-April, but this eagerly anticipated annual event was overshadowed by spring overshoot fever — southerly winds brought, well, a windfall of rare birds to the Cape and Islands. Most of these were brought here early, likely after getting caught over the ocean, then making their way back to land and, lucky for us, ending up here on the welcoming arm of our little archipelago in the North Atlantic. These birds come in two categories, New England breeding birds that would eventually have arrived next month, and southern breeders that truly overshot their breeding grounds, some by as much as 1000 miles.

The first category includes Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, and various warblers, all of which were reported this week from both yards and natural areas, plus an early Roseate Tern in Falmouth. The second category is a little more interesting in that the species involved shouldn’t be here at any time of year. This week, the southerly specials from this category included several Prothonotary Warblers, Summer Tanagers, and White-eyed Vireos, plus a couple of Blue Grosbeaks, and just off Cape, a gaudy male Painted Bunting at a feeder in Kingston. In addition to the novelty of seeing these out-of-range rarities, it helps their appeal that all of these are stunning species.

You don’t have to dust off your trekking poles to penetrate the deepest, wildest woodlands and swamps to have a chance at seeing these odd visitors — they might even come to you. One person sent me a photo of a glowing red male Summer Tanager that sat on her deck railing while she practiced violin, and someone else I know sent me a picture of another Summer Tanager sitting on a picnic table at Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Sanctuary.

Over the next day, a dazzling yellow Prothonotary Warbler, an uncommon, cavity-nesting warbler of southern swamps, plus a White-eyed Vireo were also discovered at Long Pasture by birders there to see the tanager — a southern overshoot trifecta. In fact, most of the birds involved in this southerly fallout were reported from yards or within a short walk from some public parking area. Case in point, two Swallow-tailed Kites were photographed from the parking lot of Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro on Monday, punctuating this week of southern rarities.

It’s official — that celestial event of last week is old news. It’s been eclipsed by a fallout of colorful and rare spring migrants. So get your hummingbird feeder out, and I daresay your oriole feeder and orange halves as well, because some of these lovely, lost travelers could be coming to a yard near you.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.