In birding terms, the southern winds of early April are a gift that just keeps on giving. Though the weather has been a little dreary, we’ve had just enough nice days for the birders to get out there and discover more surprising species lurking in our largely leafless woods and thickets.
These include more of the lovely southern species I covered last week, like Blue Grosbeaks and Hooded Warblers, plus newly discovered fancy southerners like a gorgeous Kentucky Warbler in Provincetown. But there are a couple of even more unusual birds I’d like to focus on. They’re just in from South America, and boy are their wings tired.
The first of these is the Common Nighthawk, a species not so common on the Cape and Islands, especially in April. Birders have noted this species in Truro, Manomet, and Nantucket recently, which is a month ahead of schedule for this normally late spring migrant from their wintering grounds throughout South America. These nocturnal insectivores fly around like giant bats feeding on flying insects, much like their close relatives, Whip-poor-wills. One study found 500 mosquitoes in the stomach of a Common Nighthawk, while another had over 2000 flying ants, so you probably want these guys around.
Nighthawks breed in open forests with bare ground patches and in cities throughout the continent, but populations have declined precipitously in recent decades, likely due to fire suppression, mosquito spraying, and oddly enough, the resurfacing of urban rooftops. That’s right – just about anything can be habitat for the right creature, and Common Nighthawks can’t get enough old-style gravelly city rooftops, especially with all the moth attracting lights providing them with fast food.
The problem is gravel rooftops have fallen out of favor with urban builders, and most are being replaced with smooth, heat absorbing black rubber, a totally unsuitable nesting material for a nighthawk. Since nighthawks in Massachusetts only seem to breed in cities, this has meant bad news for this fun bird of the urban night. Their woodcock-esque peenting calls have always been an important part of a summer night in the city for me, and I’d hate to see them disappear.
Our next oddity is a bird that’s just plain rare in New England – the elegant Upland Sandpiper. I have never seen one in Massachusetts away from a handful of known breeding locations, all of them at grassy airports. This is not your average sandpiper, being a purely terrestrial bird mostly breeding in Midwestern remnant prairies and wintering in southern South American grasslands. A few probably colonized New England during the vast agricultural land clearing of the colonial period, or were here already in burned over moors and coastal prairies.
Twice in the last couple of weeks, folks have seen these scarce, globe-trotting shorebirds on the Cape, where there are less than 10 ever spring records of migrants. On Saturday, an Upland Sandpiper was videoed walking tamely around by the parking lot of Coast Guard Beach in Eastham but has not been seen since.
You are unlikely to find one of these guys away from an airport, so if you have the time, I recommend getting yourself to some legal vantage point at one of their breeding areas this spring, like Plane Jane’s restaurant at Plymouth Airport, because Upland Sandpipers have one of the best all-time calls in the bird world. Oh, and if you do go to Plane Jane’s make sure to get some food – they’re friendly, but they don’t need any freeloading sandpiper seekers loitering on their deck.