Say's Phoebe Makes a Rare, and Very Personable, Appearance in Wellfleet

Sep 6, 2017

Say what? Say’s Phoebe! That’s what birders were saying last week when an uber rare flycatcher from the west made an appearance at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

When a couple of birders came off the trails with photos of a gray and cinnamon-colored flycatcher which they had identified as a Say’s Phoebe, the birder communication network swung into action. While 30 years ago you would have been on a phone tree to learn about birds like this, this phoebe quickly went viral on local birding Facebook groups, listservs, and on Cornell’s eBird site. Before I had even made it all the way out on the trail to confirm the identification I was getting calls from birders asking, “Is it still there?”

The bird was indeed still there, and proceeded to flit from perch to perch at the edge of the saltmarsh, sometimes nearly within arm’s reach of us as it sallied forth to snatch flying insects from midair or crickets and grasshoppers from the marsh grass. Like our familiar Eastern Phoebe, Say’s Phoebes are happy nesting on manmade structures and keeping in close contact with people, making them quite approachable. They are known to nest in mailboxes, on machinery, and on porches. I’ve seen phoebes nesting in campground outhouses, where they become intimately familiar with people, you might say. This habit might explain the Eastern Phoebe we had at the sanctuary a few years ago who would routinely land on people as they walked our trails.

With only a handful of modern records for Massachusetts, Say’s Phoebe is not your everyday phoebe in these parts. They nest no closer than Kansas, and winter in central Mexico. They have the distinction of nesting further north than any flycatcher, all the way to northern Alaska, where they have been expanding their range further north into the treeless tundra by following the Alaskan pipeline, on which they nest. I would guess that our bird came from the northern end of the breeding range, where a relatively slight error in the angle of their migration route will eventually have them way off course. And the beckoning arm of the Cape is always happy to take in a lost and weary migrant.

Say’s Phoebe is named for the first scientist to see this species, American naturalist Thomas Say. The species was named in Say’s honor by Charles Bonaparte, a respected ornithologist in his own right as well as the nephew of Napoleon himself. 

Birders who showed up to see the phoebe that day were rewarded with close views, as well as sightings of other fancy species like an adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and the big, spectacular sandpipers known as Whimbrels.

Elsewhere around the area, late summer has produced the expected assortment of rare and out of place migratory birds, like the Franklin’s Gull photographed in Chatham on the 31st, and the Yellow-headed Blackbird reported from South Monomoy on the 2nd. Both are central and western flyway species with a tendency to end up too far east on occasion. And the strong southwest winds howling outside as I record this are sure to load up the peninsula with another batch of interesting birds, providing all the more reason to visit your local birding patch.

Finally, September brings with it the start of another season of Cape Cod Bird Club meetings, beginning with Monday’s talk by Mass Audubon’s Joan Walsh. Joan is one of the most entertaining speakers around, and she’ll be talking about Mass Audubon’s latest State of the Birds report, focusing specifically on the impacts of climate change on Massachusetts breeding birds. Cape Cod Bird Club meetings are at 7PM and are held at the Cape Cod Museum of natural History in Brewster on the second Monday of each month. Meetings are free and open to all. If you don’t want to wait until then, she is also speaking Saturday at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary – call the sanctuary for details. Hopefully I’ll see you all out in the field, at one of these talks, or both.