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Spring migrants, and the ones we’re still waiting for

Bay-breasted warbler
Bill Majoros
Bay-breasted warbler

We’re entering the home stretch of spring migration, but, here on the Cape, it still feels like a sputtering engine that can’t quite turn over. I’ve made valiantly optimistic predictions about what various southwest wind events might bring us the last two weeks and have mostly been wrong - no big overnight fallouts of songbirds have yet materialized, as too many days of northeast winds have kept them away. But if you look hard enough you can still find some measure of migration, perhaps, like me, right in your own neighborhood.

On Monday morning, I awoke to find things disappointingly quiet, though after a bit of listening I noticed the songs of two of our most stunning and sought-after spring migrants cutting through the chorus of more pedestrian backyard birds. First I heard the buzzy, goldfinch-esque phrasings of a male Indigo Bunting from the top of some oak. One had been around my neighborhood a day or two, so I assumed it was that bird lingering. But after a bit of walking around I realized there were actually three of them, though it was close to an hour before I laid eyes on one of these searingly blue, surprisingly elusive songsters. Out of curiosity, I fired up my Merlin app, and it quickly and correctly identified the bunting song. I have seen the app mistakenly call a goldfinch an Indigo Bunting, but it had no trouble with the real thing.

Next, I heard the hurried, sibilant song of a Bay-breasted Warbler, also from an oak. I stared, frustrated, at the trees for some time, hearing the song but not seeing the bird. I ended up with a tally of at least five, though I suspect there were several more, finally getting eyes on two together in a neighbor’s tree. These birds are true eye candy, getting their name from the rich, reddish-brown and black color of a bay horse. These little songbirds of northern woods sport a deep chestnut brown cap and breast with a black mask, black and gray streaked back, and white belly. If you saw one close in good light you might gasp, but mostly they look dark as they flit high and backlit in the emerging leaves of some oak. And for the record, I have found Merlin to be near flawless at identifying their difficult little song – on Monday it picked one out with my phone still in my pocket.

Last Friday I led a walk for the Provincetown Conservation Trust in the famous Beech Forest, something I hadn’t done in years. A mid-May morning in those woods should bring a surfeit of songbird migrants, but it was so birdlessly quiet as the 12 eager participants gathered and stared at me that I started to get flop sweat. Eventually, over the two-hour walk, some satisfying, if brief looks at common, work-a-day migrants like Northern Parula, Black-and-white Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, and American Redstart bailed me out, though I was stunned at the silence of the woods – the cold northeast winds had struck again, keeping most northbound birds well to our west.

While we may not be flooded with birds, it can still pay to get out and look. A rare Cerulean Warbler, a stunning, singing male, was photographed at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary yesterday. Sadly for me, though I was there off and on, I was too busy to hear about or look for it until it was too late. While they have bred on occasion as close as Hingham, and annually in West Central Mass, this sky-blue species is an exceedingly rare find in migration – I’ve not seen one on the Cape.

I hesitate to even say it, but we are looking at several days of southwest winds favorable to migration. The next ten days could bring the wished-for slug of flycatchers, tanagers, warblers, and grosbeaks to the Beech Forest and point beyond. Or like my predictions of the previous two weeks, it could be a total bust - I’ve got flop sweat just thinking about it.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.