Little Blue Heron, Worm-eating Warbler, Pacific Loon Among Bird-a-thon Highlights

May 17, 2017

As the dust continues to settle after Mass Audubon’s statewide fundraiser and epic birding blitz known as Bird-a-thon, we team captains are tallying the results to submit to headquarters. At stake is the vaunted Brewster Cup, awarded to the sanctuary reporting the most species in the 24-hours of Bird-a-thon.

The winners won’t be announced for a few nail-biting weeks, during which I can’t do much other than wait and fret over the species my team missed.

The weather leading up to Bird-a-thon was brutally bad for those hoping for a strong showing of migrant songbirds. A holding pattern of cold, wet weather and easterly winds turned out to be a recipe for our worst year ever in terms of migrant warblers. On Bird-a-thon my brother and I bird entirely with the town of Plymouth, where in a good year we can see or hear 130 species or more in 24 hours, including 20 species of warbler. But this year we had an anemic 7 species of warbler and only 115 species total, well below our average. The lingering March-like weather also delayed or dampened the spirits of returning breeding birds like Scarlet Tanager and Eastern Wood-Pewee, both of which we missed for the first time ever. Luckily others on my team picked up both species.

No team’s strategy would be successful without a thorough scouring of the Cape and Islands birding hotspots, many of which are immune to bad weather, and this year they did not disappoint. Bell’s Neck conservation area in West Harwich was aflutter with Bird-a-thon team members on Friday and Saturday, all hoping to get a glimpse of the rare Common Gallinule and Little Blue Heron, both of which are rare enough to be a feather in the cap of any team. Glossy Ibises and uncommon shorebirds like White-rumped Sandpiper were also a nice “gets” at Bell’s Neck.

Falmouth has become a must-visit for Bird-a-thon teams, harboring rare breeding birds like Worm-eating Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, and Chuck-will’s Widow, all of which have more southerly affinities in general. It’s also the best place on the Cape to get Ruffed Grouse, as well as rare grassland birds at places like Crane Wildlife Management Area.

Normally the Beech Forest in Provincetown would be a must visit for migrant drop-ins, but the weather-related dearth of warblers made it a bit of a beat scene this weekend. No matter, as nearby Race Point did not disappoint, producing lingering winter seabirds like Iceland and Glaucous Gulls, Razorbill, and even a Black Guillemot. One team reported a breeding plumaged Pacific Loon, which would be a near impossibility anywhere else in the state right now.

No team should forget about the islands, of course. Martha’s Vineyard held lingering Harlequin Ducks, and is the only place in the state with reliable Black Skimmers anymore, so a team needs a presence there to be competitive. My stalwart Nantucket team came through with some island specialties, including Barn Owl and Merlin, both of which breed on the island but few other places in Massachusetts.

One of the fringe benefits of Bird-a-thon is that all the extra eyes and ears spreading out across the landscape tend to turn up some interesting birds we otherwise wouldn’t have known about. Many birders spend the day after Bird-a-thon chasing the many rarities discovered on Friday and Saturday.

As for me, I’m still tallying and hoping for that Brewster Cup. I don’t know that we’ll win, but I do know one thing – if we don’t, it’s definitely because those other guys cheated…