April is the month on the Cape and Islands where spring starts to tease us. While we get some token 50 degree days, we’re forced to chuckle at the reports of 70 or even 80 degree weather from the Boston news stations – those mainlanders know a different kind of spring than we do. Their trees leaf out weeks earlier than ours, which are held back by the cold, wet embrace of the ocean water surrounding us.
Nevertheless, April holds many feathered signs of hope for those of us on this cold, wet archipelago, and many great places to see them.
Like the residents, our earliest migrants are of the hardy sort. Ospreys start trickling back in late March and most nests are occupied by mid-April. Piping Plovers are back on raw, wind-blown, area beaches, where you can see males defending newly established territories a couple of different ways. The first is a “figure 8” display flight, where males call continuously while aerially transcribing an 8 over and over again above their chose nesting area. And to really define the boundaries of their territories with neighboring males, they both engage in parallel running between the water and the dune grass, like tiny soldiers defining a sort of plover demilitarized zone between their two nesting areas.
The West Harwich Conservation Area is one of the best known and most productive spots in spring, offering a chance to see migrant waterfowl, shorebirds, and maybe even frolicking river otters, which have been seen multiple times there in recent weeks. Up to seven Osprey, a pair of Bald Eagles, a Eurasian Green-winged Teal, both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and a Sora have been among the sightings here in just the last week. Rare marsh birds and shorebirds are always possible at Bell’s Neck.
Both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are essentially one big spring birding hotspot. Exhausted migrants that find themselves out over the water will navigate to the nearest point of land to take a break, and the islands are there for them. Expected migrants and fancy rarities alike can turn up anywhere, like the wayward Prothonotary Warbler and Black-necked Stilt who turned up on the Vineyard this week.
The Beech Forest in Provincetown is the classic spot to witness spring migration of songbirds, particularly neotropical migrant warblers, tanagers, and grosbeaks returning from their sunny wintering grounds from Mexico to northern South America. Once May comes around, a dozen or more species of warbler is possible in a morning, most sporting their multiciolored breeding finery. If you suffered through the confusing fall warbler period of September and October, when every warbler is some befuddling combination of gray and drab greenish yellow, May is your time to collect your birding dues in the form of songbird eye candy. One look at a flamingly orange-breasted male Blackburnian Warbler foraging among the oak flowers helps restore the soul after a long and colorless Cape Cod winter. Check the Cape Cod Bird Club website for their scheduled Beech Forest warbler walks each weekend in May.
But if you know how to look, and perhaps more importantly how to listen, you can spot these birds in your own yard. Any oaks or other deciduous trees with flowers and new leaves will attract warblers and other migrants. So bone up on your warbler songs and listen to what your yard has to tell you. You might find that you live in an under-the-radar migration hot spot.