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Bird-a-thon birds and migration ready to explode

Cerulean warbler
Cerulean warbler

Last week I predicted our first real migrant songbird fallout of May on Thursday morning. Sadly, that did not materialize, probably because of too much rain between us and the birds that night, stopping them short of New England. The result was a Mass Audubon Bird-a-thon weekend with species highlights that might as well have been from January – things like murres and lingering winter gulls and ducks were among the top Cape and Islands sightings from this 24-hour, Friday to Saturday birding blitz. The May bird explosion would have to wait a little longer, it seemed.

But my Mass Audubon Cape region birding team was undeterred, and some were rewarded with excellent birds as we birded our butts off in pursuit of the coveted Brewster Cup, awarded to the Mass Audubon region posting the most species in the 24 hours of Bird-a-thon. A rare-for-the-Cape Common Nighthawk was found snoozing on a wooded path in Provincetown Saturday morning, while a handsome Hooded Warbler was found not far away, one of just a few in the whole state that day. Longtime Cape Bird-a-thon stalwart Steve Burke looked up somewhere near Santuit Pond to see a Swallow-tailed Kite soaring gracefully overhead, a scene more likely in a southern cypress swamp. This rare and lovely topical hawk has become suspiciously regular in spring from South Sandwich to Cotuit, so keep an eye skywards in that area in the coming months.

My birders in strategic locations came through with their appointed specialty birds as well as some unexpected surprises. The island crews got their Northern Harriers and Barn Owls, Northern Shovelers, Summer Tanager, Black Skimmers, lingering Harlequin Ducks, and the rare Yellow-throated Warbler that has spent several springs on Martha’s Vineyard, oddly. Many summer on the island, but this non-conformist visitor chooses to spring there. One birder turned up a near-mythical Cerulean Warbler on Tuckernuck, only the fourth record for the island, plus a bonus, epic flight of 4000 north-bound Red-throated Loons in two hours. Just off Cape, a tactical hit squad from our bird banding crew got their assigned Seaside Sparrow at Allen’s Pond sanctuary in South Dartmouth, among other local specialties.

The Race Point crew tallied a slew of winter birds you don’t expect to see in May – dozens of Common Murres, Razorbills, some kittiwakes, and what may have been an unprecedented parade of at least half a dozen Pacific Loons, all sharing the horizon with newly arrived summer seabirds like Roseate Terns and Sooty Shearwaters.

Despite many highlights, many were still disappointed at the lack of transient songbirds, especially warblers. Some are wondering if they may skip us altogether this year. But fear not, as the gods of bird migration may be smiling on us this week. At a certain point in mid-May, the birds just come north, ready or not – missing the breeding season is not an option. That urgency, combined with multiple days of southwest winds and a little well-timed rain, should bring the birds we were hoping for last week. I think this weekend will be a great one to get out on a bird walk, like those run by Cape Cod Bird Club at Beech Forest in Provincetown, and feast on the eye candy that is a Blackburnian or Bay-breasted Warbler. In just a couple of weeks, these colorful, ephemeral visitors will disappear into vast northern forests, and for us it’s back to common backyard birds, and that background hum of dread for the coming tourist season.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.