Migrants' Push to Return to Breeding Areas Likely to Produce a Great Weekend for Birding

May 21, 2014

Little Egret, similar to the one spotted on Nantucket this past weekend.
Credit Isidro Vila Verde / flickr

Last weekend as birders scoured the Cape and Islands, many taking part in a Birdathon raising funds for bird conservation, a wealth of birds were found. An egret from the Old World, a Little Egret was discovered on Nantucket where North America’s first Little Egret was discovered some twenty five years ago. A lingering Snow Goose and a Snowy Owl were also found, birds that should be long gone, far to the north of this region in mid-May. Despite a dearth of migrant thrushes, vireos and warblers, the determined birders managed to find many unusual birds.

The upcoming Memorial Day Weekend is one of the top weekends of the year to look for and find birds on the Cape and Islands. Historically, it is the hands down winner for providing the most exciting birding of the spring migration. Both vagrants and visitors alike appear during this long weekend.

Land birds have learned over countless generations to stay away from the coastline during the spring migration. Due to the cooling influence of cold ocean waters, emergent vegetation and insect abundance is weeks behind that found just a few miles inland. More food, shelter, water and safety for a migrating bird are to be found by staying off the immediate coastline.

But as the spring migration proceeds, time waits for no bird and the push to return to breeding areas becomes so urgent that the birds often get up and fly on nights when they should not. This happens most often near the end of May as the birds’ endocrine systems are running wide open and the urge to find a mate and perpetuate the species all-powerful. Birding at the end of May is most exciting along the coastline as birds throw caution to the wind.

As the season progresses the birds' desire to get north increases and many make the last leg of the journey in a big hurry, regardless of the weather. Arctic nesting shorebirds make a last big push north, and the end of May and early June is the best time to see both numbers and variety of plovers and sandpipers on tidal flats and beaches. The end of May is an exciting time of movement and migration, especially for the birds that nest furthest north.

Lastly, should the weather be good, people flock to the beaches just as Least Terns, Piping Plovers and American Oystercatchers are at their most vulnerable. Please pay attention to beach areas with nesting bird signs and do not bring the dog to the beach.

If you are on a beach and any bird starts calling or dive-bombing, one need not be a rocket scientist to figure out that you are almost on top of its nest. Give the little birds a break and move away.