This past weekend, the fickle gods of bird migration finally smiled on the Cape. To our south, favorable tail winds got migrant songbirds up and flying our way on Friday night, while a front coming from the west brought rain and unfavorable winds. These forces conspired to guide, then ground those migrants along our coast.
I saw this developing and was quietly excited, though I learned long ago to temper expectations for fallouts here on the Cape. Watching mainland sites with their warmer temps and more advanced foliage garner most of the warblers and other songbirds had broken my birder heart too many times before. But it seemed like it was finally happening. And this wasn’t just any birding weekend, this was Mass Audubon’s Bird-a-thon weekend.
Each year, Mass Audubon’s various sanctuaries and departments form teams and compete to see the most birds in 24 hours while raising money for our conservation and education work. Timed for peak songbird migration, this event harnesses the electric excitement every birder feels in mid-May. Obviously this was not an ordinary year, so a radical re-thinking of the event was in order. It was now a zero-carbon Bird-at-home-a-thon – everyone was to bird safely at or close to home – only walking or biking was allowed. We added family friendly ways to score points for your team, like creating wacky bird names, filling your birdfeeder, and scavenger hunts.
But birding without a car? How would I get to Plymouth Airport for the Upland Sandpipers and Vesper Sparrow? Or to that pond with the nesting Bald Eagles and Brown Creepers? I would just have to let some of the usual places go. Luckily, the birds came to us. On Friday I slightly shifted my home base to my family’s vacant home near the famous Manomet bluffs in Plymouth. I even took a solar charged electric vehicle, so used zero carbon to get there. Excellent warbler spots and Manomet Point were in easy walking and biking distance. I was ready for a fallout. Plus I had a tip on a crazy bird – a Purple Gallinule at a tiny man-made pond in my cousin’s neighborhood, and another rarity in the form of a well-known Red-headed Woodpecker in nearby neighborhood.
But the fun of the day was the typically uncommon migrants that were easy to find - Swainson’s Thrushes and Veeries hopping around on lawns, omnipresent Least Flycatchers, several Lincoln’s and White-crowned Sparrows. Black-and-white Warblers and Northern Parulas were everywhere. It was clear these particular species were in heavy migration the night before when they hit the rainy front and were forced to drop out. I was pleased. And also sore – in 24 hours I biked 25 miles, which is 25 miles more than I had biked in the last year.
I have since seen some jaw-dropping reports from some of the elite birders, folks who spent Saturday chasing the best possible fallout location. Some had literally thousands of songbirds coming in off the water Saturday morning, particularly at High Head in Truro and at Provincetown Airport. There, Sean Williams won the migration lottery, tallying 131 species in 5 hours, including over 6000 individual migrant songbirds. These were epic reports, among the most amazing I’ve seen in Massachusetts, and I will need to talk about them next week.
When we completely overhauled the Bird-a-thon rules, I was skeptical. Would anyone sign up? Surely no one would limit themselves in that way at the best birding time of year, especially since birding is already a relatively safe outdoor activity where it’s easy to socially-distance. But people signed up, and they kept signing up. Both our participation and our fundraising was better than ever – the support we have received is deeply touching. At a time when everyone has to be apart, our supporters really came together for birds and wildlife, and it felt good. That’s more than I can say for my biking legs– for those I’m accepting donations of ibuprofen.