On the night of May 15th, several of the state’s elite birders could hardly sleep. The forecast looked too good to be true – southwest winds over a broad area to our south, then rainstorms out of the west continuing into the predawn hours. This could be it, the big one. The fallout.
In Massachusetts we have a history of hosting a lot of rare birds thanks to a combination of geography and our high density of birders per square mile. And our seabirds and shorebirds are unparalleled, bringing birders from all over. But when it comes to the true spectacle of songbird migration, many places in the east have us beat by a mile, as the warbler flies.
Cape May, New Jersey sees epic migrations every spring and fall, ditto the Florida Keys, and several places along the Gulf coast from Alabama to Texas – Dauphin Island, High Island. Just the names of these places make a birder salivate during migration season, because they are synonymous with the term fallout – that rare combination of weather and birds that has typically uncommon warblers, tanagers, and buntings literally falling out of the sky and hopping around at your feet. Even the Great Lakes are way better than Massachusetts when it comes to spring migration.
But here, most migrants pass undetected overhead while we sleep. So it was with great hope that birders set their alarms last Friday night, dreams of tired and grounded warblers dancing in their heads. But where was the best place to cast your lot? The North Shore? Manomet? The Outer Cape? Would the Connecticut Valley see birds dripping from the trees? It was like buying a lottery ticket, and the winner was Sean Williams, who made the long drive from Central Mass to the outermost reaches of Cape Cod.
It was still dark when Sean pulled into the parking lot of Provincetown Airport, right at Race Point Beach, and immediately his headlights filled with birds. He got out, noting the pavement and bushes were alive with hundreds of wet warblers and sparrows. This was it. While sorting through these birds he noticed flocks of up to 20 warblers coming in off the ocean, tucking their wings, and plummeting in unison into the thickets with the coordination of a minnow school, as he described it. A few feet above the thickets they would break form and scatter.
Over the next 5 hours, Sean saw 131 species and more than 6000 individual birds, an astounding total for songbirds, by basically sitting still. This was epic, unprecedented in Massachusetts ornithology. He set new spring high counts for 22 species on Cape Cod, and all-time state high counts for 8. In the word of Cape birding legend Blair Nikula, “In most cases, these old highs were not just broken; they were smashed, shattered, and crushed into oblivion!”. We’re talking about 890 Northern Parulas, over 400 Black-and-white Warblers, over 200 Eastern Kingbirds, fresh in from the Amazon. Normally rare warblers like Bay-breasted and Cape May totaled 114 and 181, respectively. He saw 27 Scarlet Tanagers.
I can’t stress enough how difficult Sean’s feat was. The combination of focus, skill, and experience it took to document this incredible event as accurately as he did is hard to convey. These birds were in most cases flying, forcing him to identify and/or photograph 4.5” moving targets passing sometimes at a rate of 100 birds per minute. Here's an account of what Sean witnessed that morning complete with photos.
Meanwhile, my major ornithological achievement this week was when the local Great Crested Flycatchers accepted my offering of old beard clippings for use in their nest. Now I can finally say that birds are literally nesting in my beard…