Rare Sightings In Falmouth

Feb 6, 2019

Credit budgora / Creative Commons 2.0 / bit.ly/2MQtazM

I probably don’t talk about Falmouth enough. As an Outer Cape person, it seems about as close as Boston does, which keeps me from birding it very much. And Falmouth lacks the exciting seabirding and the history of rare birds of the Outer Cape. But a couple of very unusual sightings of seriously lost west coast birds has Falmouth on my mind.

In late January, a photo was posted to the Cape Cod Birders Facebook group with a request for identification.  Any experienced birders who saw the photo instantly experienced a mild sweat and quickened heart rate, as it showed a beautiful Townsend’s Warbler, a species with just ten ever records on the Cape and Islands that had been visiting some feeders in Woods Hole. This was history repeating itself, as the famously birdy Town Hall thickets of Falmouth hosted the state’s third ever Townsend’s Warbler back in 1991, when I was still in high school and rare bird news still traveled exclusively by phone.

This is a real looker of a warbler, with bright yellow on the face and breast set of by a crisp black cap, mask, and throat. Breeding males are particularly stunning, but even young and winter plumaged birds seem shockingly yellow against a winter landscape. They breed in coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest and Rockies, as far north as Alaska, and winter from coastal Washington to the highlands of Mexico and Central America. According to eBird, this Woods Hole bird is one of only two Townsend’s Warblers in the eastern US this winter. The precise location is being kept private - even I don’t know where the bird is, so don’t ask!

Another, more public rarity has been visiting Falmouth recently in the form of a Pacific Loon on Salt Pond. This bird comes with several layers of rarity. As the name implies, Pacific Loons are rare anywhere on the east coast.

Credit Andrew Reding / Creative Commons 2.0 / bit.ly/2UJcWLs

On the Cape, they are very rare anywhere but Race Point in Provincetown, where a two-mile slog in soft sand is often required to find one. And they are just about unheard of on any body of water smaller than the Atlantic Ocean or Cape Cod Bay. So this bird paddling around on Salt Pond was a real treat for those who got to see it at the end of January.

Hopefully it’s still around somewhere, but it’s tricky telling a Pacific from our more expected Common and Red-throated Loons, and photos are often required for sorting them out. Look for a loon intermediate in size between the other two species with a gracefully rounded head and neck, and a clean, straight delineation between the dark upper and white lower neck. With very good looks, a dark “chinstrap” is sometimes present, sealing the identification.

The calendar says this is deepest, coldest winter, but the thermometer makes it seem like we should be planting our gardens. No doubt we’ll be back to single digits at some point, so take advantage of this balmy weather to get out and find your own Pacific Loon, Townsend’s Warbler, or something even more surprising. If you do, make sure to tell me where you find it – I swear I won’t tell a soul...