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One Mississippi, two Mississippis: Keep your eyes open for birds overhead

Mississippi Kite
Dennis Behm
Mississippi Kite

It finally happened, for me anyway, on Friday morning. By “it,” I mean some clear evidence of newly arrived migrants of a number worthy of mid-to-late May. Opening the door shortly after 6 a.m. revealed a loud yard with warbler song – Bay-breasted, Magnolia, and Blackburnian, probably a Cape May, and at least 10 Blackpoll Warblers. Several of multiple species were in the oaks just above my deck, others sang and chased each other in adjacent neighbor’s yards. An Eastern Kingbird that wasn’t there the day before called harshly somewhere, and a newly arrived Red-eyed Vireo sang its endless, halting, robin-ey phrases. Who knows what else I’d find on my customary post-bus stop morning walk?

Except, now that the birds had finally arrived, I had no time for them – tragically, my birding that morning was limited to the time it took my son to eat his bagel. As soon as he was on the bus I had to rush off to catch an early boat. I’ll never know what I might have seen that morning, though I made the best of the ten solid minutes I had outside, which, it turned out, was the last gasp of peak songbird migration in my neighborhood.

Elsewhere on the Cape, Friday was the day of many kites. The warm bubble of air that had brought my backyard songbirds also carried with it a payload of rare southern hawks, as is customary in late May and June here on the Cape. The latest of many recent sightings of Swallow-tailed Kite was reported from West Barnstable on Friday in the general area where these largely South American hawks seem, quite puzzlingly, to settle in each spring. The area from South Sandwich over to Marstons Mills and down to Osterville and Cotuit has been the Swallow-tailed Kite district in recent years.

But Friday was mainly a day for the other kite, the Mississippi Kite. These small, buoyant hawks came here from wintering grounds as far as Argentina, but normally breed no further north than South Carolina. They nest in woodlands and prairie shelterbelts, famously divebombing those who venture too close to nests. Here, they show up as over-eager overshoot migrants in late May and June, when local birders know to look up on warm days. Some who did on Friday got to count one Mississippi, two Mississippi Kites together by Waquoit Bay in East Falmouth, and also in North Truro from atop Bearberry Hill, always a great place to perch yourself for a spring kite watch on warm days.

Others saw single Mississippi Kites in Falmouth, Mashpee, Barnstable, and North Truro between Thursday and Monday, so keep your eyes aimed high as well – look for a slender, narrow-winged, gray and black hawk gliding gracefully or snatching flying insects, their staple prey. The Upper Cape and from North Truro to Provincetown have always been the likely areas to spot them for some reason, with few sightings in between. Back in 2008, a pair of Mississippi Kites established an improbable nest in Newmarket, New Hampshire – the most northerly nest before that was in Virginia.

Kites weren’t the only overshoots in the last week, with a tuxedoed, long-legged shorebird called a Black-necked Stilt delighting birders in Harwich for a couple of days, and a super-rare-for-spring Western Kingbird, a bird that nests no closer than central Texas, hawking insects at a landing on Wellfleet Habor.

It may be mostly over, but it’s clear from all these wackadoo birds still showing up that spring migration is not done with us. So keep looking up on these warm days, and who knows, you might see one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, maybe four Mississippi, five Mississippi, six Mississippi….

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.