Spring Songbird Migration is On

Apr 25, 2018

Scarlet Tanagers
Credit CREDIT TOM MURRAY / HTTPS://BIT.LY/2VJTPTY

Birds do what they want. They have no time for “the man” and his rules about where and when they should be found. I never would have predicted that this would be a year we would see our migrant songbirds back early from the tropics, but that’s what makes birding so compelling – they always keep you guessing, and I guessed wrong on this one.

About a week ago, a strong overshoot event brought a number of spring migrants well north of where they wanted to be in mid-April. Cornell’s Bird Cast website showed heavy migration in the southeast in the two days prior, and some of those birds likely got caught out over the ocean and were subsequently brought north by tailwinds. When they were finally able to orient back to land, they found themselves anywhere between Nantucket and Nova Scotia about three weeks to a month earlier than would be normal for their spring timetable. Migration is not for the faint of heart – these birds were likely caught out over the ocean for some time, and were exhausted when they made landfall. This was unlucky for them, but lucky for the people who got to see some of our most beautiful and colorful migrants up close, because the group of migrants affected was the tanagers, grosbeaks, and buntings.

Some very early Scarlet Tanagers turned up several places, including Nantucket, Eastham, and Brewster, and they didn’t seem very happy about where they were. With trees barely showing leaf buds and relatively few insects available still, these birds were struggling noticeably, often hopping around on the ground looking puffed up and cold. I saw two such birds in Eastham. A Scarlet Tanager was called in as injured with a droopy wing but when I showed up, it turned out he could fly well enough to evade capture, and was doing surprisingly well finding caterpillars to eat in unceremonious places like the wall of a park service bathroom facility. But it was stunning to see these two birds that you would typically see high in tree hopping around at my feet. The glowing, slightly orangey red of a Scarlet Tanager, set off beautifully by the deep black wings, makes cardinals seem like dull underachievers by comparison.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Credit Kenneth Cole Schneider / https://bit.ly/2Fed1i6

The lovely, tricolored Rose-breasted Grosbeak is always scarce on the Cape and Islands, though they breed commonly in the richer woods of central and western MA. So when three individuals arrived at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary feeders last week, it was surprising for both the date and the number.

Two of our bluest birds were also part of the unseasonable fallout – Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks. When you get a good look at a male Indigo Bunting, you don’t soon forget it, and individuals turned up on the islands and in Brewster last week.

As is often the case, the islands have been the real hotspots for these southern overshoots, with both Nantucket and the Vineyard hosting several Blue and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, and both Scarlet and Summer Tanagers this week, way ahead of schedule. The Vineyard also had a Hooded Warbler, a scarce and stunningly yellow southern breeding warbler that is a treat in any season.

While some birds have been early, other late April migrants are arriving right on schedule, such as the first hummingbirds of the spring that showed up in Brewster and Orleans over the last couple of days. It feels strange that we have tanagers and hummingbirds arriving while we still have a few Snowy Owls on the beaches, like the one I flushed from a dune in Eastham last Friday, but that’s the kind of spring it’s been. Nevertheless, spring songbird migration is on, and it’s bringing a sorely needed splash of color to our gray and leafless landscape. Get out and check your local migrant hotspots, or even just your yard, and, as always, let me know if you find anything wacky.