Neil Haywardand Robert H. Stymeist
Gulls by Richard Johnson
Weather-wise, July and August are good months for conducting breeding bird surveys and watching the start of the fall shorebird migration. July saw average temperatures below normal and the month felt more like spring than summer; the average temperature in Boston was 72 degrees, two degrees below normal. The high for the month was 93 degrees on July 19, part of a three-day heat wave with temperatures in the nineties. The only other day that hit 90 degrees was July 2. A low pressure to our southwest in mid-July kept all of New England to a near record cool; the high in Boston on July 14 was just 67 degrees! Rainfall totaled 4.03 inches in Boston, a little more than normal. The most rain in any single day was 1.41 inches on July 24.
On August 1, an estimated 100,000 Tree Swallows were noted on Plum Island. Photograph by Bob Stymeist.
August's weather was much the same as July's. The temperature averaged 72 degrees in Boston, which is about normal for the month. The month's highest temperature of 91 degrees was recorded on August 22. Rainfall was only 1.58 inches for the month in Boston, 1.77 inches below the average for August. However, other regions of the state received more rainfall; severe thunderstorms hit eastern Massachusetts on August 2 prompting the National Weather Service to issue flood warnings. Heavy downpours dumped nearly four inches of rain in some communities in the region, such as Dorchester, where 3.46 inches fell. Elsewhere, reports included 3.37 inches in Maynard and 2.72 inches in Walpole. Wind speed on August 2 was clocked at 52 mph at Logan Airport. Hurricane Gert was far off the New England coast on August 15 but the storm impacted our shoreline with high surf warnings for southeastern Massachusetts, Cape Cod, and the Islands.
WATERFOWL THROUGH SKIMMERS
The state summer tourism ads are working—winter visitors stayed for the sun and the beach crowds, including a Brant at Westport from July 27–29 and single King Eiders in August at Eastham and Duxbury Beach. The only other August record this century for King Eider was from Rockport in 2009. Also unseasonal was a male Bufflehead present for the beginning of July at Wachusett Reservoir.
The annual August deepwater pelagic trip run by the Brookline Bird Club has been invaluable in showing us what lies and flies off our watery horizons. Sadly, this year's trip was cancelled due to bad weather. Who knows what was lurking out there? For those pelagic birders confined to terra firma, Provincetown has been the go-to place to scope passing shearwaters. This summer, though, birders didn't even need binoculars; unprecedented numbers of Great Shearwaters (up to 24,000) were seen in the surf and at the water's edge. The birds have been feeding on the billions of menhaden fry driven to the shore by mackerel and other predatory fish.
Equally significant was an unusual event to the south, in Buzzards Bay, where shearwaters are rarely encountered. Observers at Gooseberry Neck have been recording almost unprecedented numbers of Cory's Shearwater (see figure 1). On July 22, recorders tallied 1,397 birds flying east into the bay. The day before, 636 Cory's were accompanied by an extraordinary report of an Audubon's Shearwater. This diminutive shearwater is a warm-water bird, usually seen only on pelagics that venture beyond the continental shelf and into the warmer Gulf Stream. The large number of shearwaters (including a handful of Great, Manx and Sooty shearwaters) may indicate a sudden food bonanza similar to that at Provincetown, where a probable Audubon's was also sighted. Spencer Fullerton Baird (first curator of the Smithsonian Institute and perhaps more familiar to us as the eponym for a sparrow and a sandpiper) noted a similar phenomenon in the fall of 1886 when "thousands" of Cory's Shearwaters entered Buzzards Bay. Apparently, young sea herring, chased into the bay by predatory mackerel and bluefish, attracted the shearwaters that year.
Figure 1. Cory's Shearwater: monthly high counts for July (solid line) and August (dotted line) 2000–2017 in Buzzards Bay (area bounded by southern coasts of Bristol and Plymouth Counties, western Cape Cod, and the Elizabeth Islands). Data from eBird.
An adult Brown Booby was spotted from Herring Cove Beach on July 14 and perhaps the same individual was seen a month later from a whale watch cruise out of Provincetown. Last period we reported the unusual number of dying Northern Gannets that had been brought into rehabilitation facilities on the Cape. While the cause is still unknown, lab results from Wild Care, Eastham, indicate that the birds were not suffering from a virus.
This year's incursion of Brown Pelicans continued throughout July with an immature beach-hopping around the North Shore and coastal New Hampshire. An adult bird was recorded on Nantucket on July 1. An American White Pelican at Scituate on August 25 was the most northerly record for the species along the Eastern Seaboard this year. The same, or a different bird, was present at the end of the month on Martha's Vineyard.
Two immature White Ibis spent over two weeks enjoying the beautiful Mass Audubon sanctuary at Wellfleet Bay. They were spotted again the day after their departure in Chatham, presumably on their return south. White-faced Ibis has become regular in spring around the Ipswich area, but is less often encountered in the summer months. A bird seen on August 14 at Plum Island was thus noteworthy.
Rail enthusiasts got their fix this summer at Fairhaven, where a pair of Clapper Rails raised as many as eight young. A King Rail was also present through most of July, and represents only the second Bristol County record after a bird seen at Allens Pond in 2013.
Sandhill Crane was first documented as a breeding bird in Massachusetts at New Marlborough in 2007. Last year a pair nested in Worthington, and this year perhaps the same pair successfully raised two young at that site. Additional pairs were present at New Marlborough and Burrage Pond, though neither seems to have bred.
An adult Little Stint was found on August 9 at Monomoy NWR and represents only the third record this century, all from Chatham. The bird was obliging to the many visiting birders, spending almost two weeks in the same small patch of mud. The Siberian and Alaskan subspecies of Bar-tailed Godwit (baueri), first discovered in June, continued in the Lower Cape until August 21. American Avocet is almost an annual fall vagrant to the state, recorded in 15 of the last 18 years. Most of those records have come from Plum Island, which is where two birds were seen again this year in mid-August. Plymouth Beach hosted an additional bird earlier in the month.
Regular fall shorebirds were roughly on target with their fall arrival dates: Western Sandpiper (July 13) and Long-billed Dowitcher (July 15), both a day later than their average arrival this century. Others were notably early: Baird's Sandpiper (July 24) and Buff-breasted Sandpiper (August 3), both more than two weeks earlier than average.
The star attraction at the Provincetown beaches this summer has been a somewhat chaseable South Polar Skua. At least two different individuals were reported in the area. South Polar Skuas breed in the Antarctic and it was only within the last 50 years that they were shown to cross the equator and winter here (that is, during our summer). Provincetown is also the best place to see Long-tailed Jaeger, a species rarely seen from land. First and second summer birds were seen on July 30.
The only alcid of the period was, predictably, a Black Guillemot, seen off Andrew's Point on July 29.
All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray. Well, perhaps not quite yet, but there was some "California Dreamin'" on the south coast, when an adult California Gull was spotted at Westport on the last day of August. There are only five accepted records of this western larid in the state; the most recent was Nantucket in January 2006. Otherwise, the best gull of the period was Franklin's Gull, capping off a great summer locally for this species. Separate individuals were seen at Ipswich and Chatham. Sabine's Gull has been almost regular in August at Provincetown, sighted on average every other year. This year unprecedented high counts of three birds (two adults and an immature) were seen in mid-August. A highly unseasonal Glaucous Gull in Gloucester Harbor is only the second record this century of a summering (July or August) bird.
Migrating Black Terns turned up along the coast as normal, but an inland record at Pittsfield was unusual. There have been only six records for Berkshire County, the westernmost county in the state, all singles in May, except for four birds in August of 1999. Royal Terns continued throughout the period, with birds, all singles, dotted along the coast from Ipswich south to Nantucket.
Three Black Skimmers at Hatches Harbor on July 10 represented the most northern record globally this year. Black Skimmers have been reclaiming their historical territory up the East Coast, with recolonization beginning here in the 1940s. This year the species bred at Monomoy and nesting pairs were present on Martha's Vineyard.
CUCKOOS THROUGH FINCHES
The fall migration of Common Nighthawk, beginning in the last weeks of August, is an event to which many birders look forward. However, reports of this enigmatic goatsucker in Massachusetts appear to be decreasing in recent years, consistent with a general population decline. A recent study from the American Bird Conservancy showed populations of Common Nighthawk and other aerial insectivores, including Chimney Swift, have dropped by more than 70 percent since the mid-1970s. Chuck-wills-widows were noted from Plymouth, Chappaquiddick, and Falmouth.
Early to mid-July is still a good time to get a pulse on breeding bird abundance. A South Shore Bird Club trip to Quabbin Reservoir (Gate 10) on July 1 tallied some impressive numbers: 11 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, 11 Eastern Wood Pewees, 78 Red-eyed Vireos, 26 Veeries, 54 Ovenbirds, 24 Chestnut-sided Warblers, and 16 Scarlet Tanagers. Another census in Wendell on July 15 recorded 126 Red-eyed Vireos, 53 Eastern Towhees and 20 Scarlet Tanagers. Purple Martins had a very successful nesting season. Colonies in Rehoboth fledged 442 young, Mashpee 180, and Plum Island 109. Blue Grosbeaks were confirmed nesting at the Frances Crane Wildlife Management Area in Falmouth, only the second documented nesting in Massachusetts. The first nesting was confirmed just last year at Cumberland Farms in Middleboro. The full report of the Falmouth nesting by Nathaniel Marchessault appears in the October 2017 issue of Bird Observer Volume 45, No 5, pp. 326–329.
The fall migration really kicks off in August when tens of thousands of Tree Swallows gather along our coasts. On Plum Island, an estimated 100,000 birds were noted on August 1 along with 5,000 Barn Swallows and 500 Bank Swallows. A report of an Olive-sided Flycatcher on August 7 in West Roxbury was early for a migrant but reports of birds in Pittsfield and Sudbury at the end of August were in the typical migration window. Other early migrants included: a Swainson's Thrush in Wayland on August 17, a Philadelphia Vireo at Plum Island on August 19, and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in Colrain on August 21. During this period a total of 28 warbler species were reported, including four early Connecticut Warblers.
Rarities are unusual during this period; a Say's Phoebe on August 31 at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary was the first August record for the species in Massachusetts. The previous earliest report was September 7, 2015 on Nantucket. A Yellow-headed Blackbird was photographed on Nantucket on August 23. Red Crossbills were reported from Camp Edwards on Cape Cod and single Evening Grosbeaks were noted from Royalston, Colrain and Tolland.