October 2017

Vol. 45, No. 5

Bird Sightings: May-June 2017

Nail Hayward and Robert H. Stymeist

The month of May started as very cold, with a high temperature on May 1 in Boston of just 48 degrees; the average temperature for May Day is 61. The month averaged 56 degrees, two degrees below normal. The first 15 days saw temperatures below normal with some rain on nine of those days, including a thunderstorm on May 2. The second half of the month was warmer thanks to a heat wave when the mercury hit 90 degrees or better for three consecutive days. Rainfall for the month totaled 3.45 inches, normal for May. The highest rainfall amount on any one day was 0.95 inches on May 14.

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The exodus of Brant—both winter visitors and migrants—is usually complete by Memorial Day, although a few straggled into June. There were four birds in Orleans on June 2, and seven at Plum Island on June 5. Other late-departing waterfowl included a male Harlequin Duck at Martha’s Vineyard until May 30, a Ring-necked Duck in Andover on June 7, and a male King Eider in Gloucester until June 28. A pair of American Wigeon was in suitable breeding habitat at Plum Island at the start of June. The baldpate, as American Widgeons used to be known, is a rare state breeder, with only three confirmed breeding records, the most recent of which was at Monomoy in 1983. Green-winged Teals are uncommon breeders in the state. This year, pairs were present in June at Bolton Flats, Plum Island, and Monomoy.

Pacific Loon—a rarity for us, but probably the most abundant loon in the rest of the continent—has become almost annual in May. This year, a basic-plumaged bird was spied from the tower at Stage Island Pool at Plum Island on May 23. Another bird, seen at Race Point on May 21, had already molted into attractive alternate plumage, and the same, or a different bird, was reported there on June 7. The latter sighting marks the first June record for the species since 2011.

Horned Grebes usually linger into early May before hot-winging it to their breeding grounds in mid-Canada west to central Alaska. This year’s dawdlers, many in colorful, golden-horned alternate plumage, were all in western Massachusetts, including seven birds at Pittsfield on May 1. Pied-billed Grebes also had another good year in 2017, with breeding confirmed at Fairhaven and Monomoy NWR. Pied-billed Grebe is a state-listed species (endangered), and 2017 is only the fifth year this century that breeding has been confirmed. Such scarcity wasn’t always the case. In the 1890s, local ornithologist William Brewster commented on the species’ abundance at Great Meadows. More recently, Plum Island was the go-to place for this secretive summer breeder, with multiple families raised in the 1970s. (The most recent breeding record from Plum Island dates from 2005.) This year’s success, following confirmed breeding last year in Royalston, gives some hope for this diminutive species.


Gypsy moth populations in Massachusetts are often cyclical, and during the summer of 2016 they were particularly destructive to foliage. Egg mass surveys have indicated that the summer of 2017 would also result in significant foliage damage. The one benefit to birders was more cuckoos; both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos were noted in good numbers across the state. Unlike during fall migration, Common Nighthawk movement in spring is generally unnoticed with few reports of large numbers. Thus, a count of 130 from Great Meadows on May 20 was notable. The Chuck-will’s Widow returned for the fifth year to Elain Avenue in North Falmouth, another was heard in nearby Camp Edwards, and four were noted from Nantucket. Reports of Red-headed Woodpeckers in nine communities from Cape Cod to western Massachusetts were encouraging. The spring hawk migration on Plum Island wound down in mid-May, adding 32 American Kestrels to the 521 tallied in April and 26 Merlins to the 39 recorded in April.

By the first week of May, passerine migration has usually started in earnest. A low pressure system off the Carolina coast at the end of April brought the first wave of migrants, which lingered into the first few days of May. On Plum Island, impressive numbers were tallied on May 2: 19 Blue-headed Vireos, 132 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, 28 Black-and-white Warblers, and 80 Yellow-rumped Warblers. In addition, early records of Red-eyed Vireo and a banded Indigo Bunting were notable. Migration stalled during the first 15 days of May with unseasonably cold and wet weather. On May 16, the weather cleared from the northwest and the floodgates opened, pushing migrants eastward and concentrating birds along the coast. Highlights on Plum Island that morning included 29 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, 18 Merlins, and large numbers of Merlin “food”: 857 Tree Swallows, 824 Barn Swallows, and 203 Bank Swallows. The next three days saw temperatures in the 90s with warm southwest winds. On May 19, warblers were “dripping off the trees” at Plum Island: 141 American Redstarts, 139 Magnolia Warblers, 91 Common Yellowthroats, 74 Yellow Warblers, and 53 Northern Parulas.