April 2018

Vol. 46, No. 2

Bird Sightings: November-December 2017

Neil Hayward and Robert H. Stymeist


The warmer than average temperatures in October continued into early November; a high of 75 degrees in Boston on November 3 was 20 degrees above normal for that date. The first official freeze in Boston occurred on November 11 when the overnight low was 23 degrees. The month averaged 44 degrees, just one degree below normal. Rainfall was only 1.8 inches, four inches below the average for November.

December was cold. The temperature in Boston averaged 31degrees, four degrees below the monthly average. Total precipitation for December in the form of rain was 2.49 inches, 1.29 inches below the average. The first blast of winter occurred just before the start of the Christmas Bird Count period; on December 9 the first significant snowstorm dumped 6–8 inches with the higher totals south and west of Boston. It was a white Christmas for all of New England. Boston recorded 2.9 inches of snow with more north of the city. High winds buffeted the coast, especially Cape Cod and the Islands, with gusts up to 65 mph. Arctic air moved into our area after the Christmas storm and Boston broke a nearly 100–year old record; the lowest high temperature on December 28 was just 12 degrees, six degrees lower than the previous record of 18 degrees set in 1924.

R. Stymeist


There are seven species of wild goose on the Massachusetts state list and, with a bit of driving, all seven could be chased this period. The rarest, a Pink-footed Goose, was in Westfield for the first two days of November, and then possibly the same bird appeared as a one-day wonder farther north at Turners Falls on November 5. A Barnacle Goose continued in the Westfield area from the previous period and may have been responsible for additional sightings in Longmeadow and central Connecticut. This was a good year for Ross's Goose; six individuals were recorded at four coastal locations. This year marks the twentieth anniversary since the species was first admitted to the state list (Sunderland, March 25–26, 1997). Ross's Goose has undergone a range shift in Arctic nesting sites, which has brought more to the East Coast. It has been recorded annually in Massachusetts since 2008. This was also an above average period for Cackling Goose and Greater White-fronted Goose, with both reported from more than 10 locations.

A Tundra Swan was seen by many on Farrar Pond, Lincoln, on November 10, before disappearing the next day.

Eurasian Wigeon numbers were particularly strong this period, with reports from eight locations. Three of the ten birds involved were females, reflecting a growing confidence in identifying the more cryptic sex. Nantucket hosted a male Tufted Duck for the fifth year in a row. An additional male was present in Lakeville. Tufted Duck has been recorded every year in Massachusetts since 1995 with the exception of 2006 and 2008. King Eiders were reported in good numbers from all the usual locations. A female at Deer Island in Boston Harbor is the first Suffolk County record since January 2012. Redheads are enjoying an excellent year. A high of 17 birds on Nantucket is the highest period count since 1979, when 67 were reported in Falmouth. The period featured a couple of interesting potential duck hybrids: an American Wigeon x Mallard hybrid in Plymouth in November; and a Common Goldeneye x Barrow's Goldeneye in Boston Harbor in December. Both birds were photographed.

An Eared Grebe was sighted off Race Point in Provincetown from December 2–5. This species never used to be so difficult in Massachusetts. Many local birders remember the individual that spent the winter of 1995 off Niles Beach in East Gloucester and returned each winter for the next 13 years. Since then, there have been five records, four of which were on the Cape. This year's record is the first since January 2015.

Last period's late show of Yellow-billed Cuckoos continued into the first week of November, buoyed by strong southwesterly tail winds at the end of October. A bird found on November 12 in Chestnut Hill was the first November record for Norfolk County.

Thirty-nine years ago, in April 1978, the first Selasphorus hummingbird of the state buzzed into a Newton backyard. This western genus includes two extremely similar species, Allen's and Rufous, and the color slides of that first pioneer couldn't distinguish between the two. Ten years later, a Selasphorus hummingbird fortuitously flew into a mist net in Nantucket, allowing identification as Allen's by measurement of the tail feathers. And finally, in 1992, a Rufous Hummingbird was videotaped in Holyoke, and the stop action frames revealed its own definitive tail feather pattern. Since then, of course, we've witnessed a truly remarkable explosion of late fall and wintering western hummingbirds in the east (see Bird Observer Vol. 45, No.5, 303–308). Since that first definitive record in 1992, Rufous Hummingbird has been recorded every year since, except for three years. This period's female in Hingham from November 12 to December 14 is the second record this year, following an overwintering bird in Falmouth at the start of the year. The average this century is 2.6 birds per year.

Perhaps surprisingly, our own familiar Ruby-throated Hummingbird is much less common in winter than Rufous Hummingbird. A bird present in Medford from November 12–December 14 is only the fourth December eBird record for the state, and the only Ruby-throat remaining north of Cape May, New Jersey.

Sandhill Cranes were spotted in seven locations, including the 2017 nonbreeding summering locales of Tolland and Burrage Pond.

Piping Plovers have typically departed the state by the end of September. A bird present at Plum Island until November 12 was rare, its departure delayed (and its fate probably sealed) by an injured wing. Semipalmated Plovers are hardier, with a number of overwintering records. Birds seen in Duxbury and Orleans in the last week of the year were the most northerly stragglers remaining on the East Coast.

There are few December records of Semipalmated Sandpipers in the United States and only two records in Massachusetts. Birds typically leave the country earlier to complete their pre-basic molt in Mexico and the Caribbean. An intriguing report from Chatham in the last week of December of Semipalmated/Western Sandpiper would be exceptionally late for either species.

Up to three Western Willets continued in Chatham through November 21. Eastern Willets, subspecies semipalmata, are coastal breeders, and typically leave the state by the end of September to spend the winter in South America. The larger, longer-billed western subspecies, inornata, that breeds in the Great Plains and prairies remains in the country, wintering along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. (Willet is often touted as a potential split based on differences in morphology, voice, range and nesting habitat.) Although uncommon in Massachusetts, Western Willet is the expected Willet in winter.

Figure 1. Parasitic Jaeger: occurrence in Massachusetts as number of days recorded in November (solid line) and December (dotted line) from 2000–2017. Data from

Despite the rarity of winter phalaropes, both species were reported in December. A Red-necked Phalarope, swimming off Mashpee on December 6, is the only December record for the state, and only the third December record on the Atlantic Coast (the other two were from North Carolina). Red-necked Phalaropes have typically left the country in November to spend the winter at sea in the southern hemisphere. Two days after the Red-necked, a probable Red Phalarope was spotted off Gooseberry Neck, only the eighth December record and the first since 2013.

Parasitic Jaegers are lingering in our waters longer than they have in the past, now staying well beyond their historical October departure (see Figure 1). This year saw birds through November and even into December.

Alcid numbers were about average for the period. Stellwagen Bank predictably supported some of the larger numbers; a boat trip on December 18 recorded 138 Dovekies and an impressive 19 Atlantic Puffins (a new high count for December).

In recent winters, Laughing Gulls haven't been laughing so much as shivering. For the past two years large numbers have lingered into a chilly December (high counts of 60 in 2015 and 250 in 2016). This year, most of them got the message to leave in November, with only a handful staying into December. Otherwise, gull action was about average for the period: Black-headed Gulls and Little Gulls were reported from five and two coastal locations, respectively.

The "P'Town P'Loon Magnet" was working well this period, attracting three Pacific Loons on December 27, tying the state high count set in the spring of 2016.

All four species of regularly-occurring shearwater were reported this period. In recent years, Cory's especially have lingered into November often in large numbers. This year's 600 off Provincetown on November 1 would have been spectacular in the years before 2014 when the species started to appear in the thousands.

Both species of pelican were reported again this period. Presumably the same Brown Pelican that has been spotted up and down the North Shore this summer was seen at Nahant and Sandy Neck in November. A probable American White Pelican stopped in Marshfield for a day, representing the only December record for Plymouth County.

November has become a reliable month for Cattle Egrets, and this year four were scattered around the state. None lingered into December.

N. Hayward


A few dedicated hawk watchers continued to monitor migration long after the peak of the Broad-winged Hawk flight. At Mount Wachusett, during a five-day stretch from November 4–8, 69 Turkey Vultures and 66 Red-tailed Hawks were tallied. At Blueberry Hill in Granville, two juvenile Golden Eagles and 15 Red-shouldered Hawks were counted on November 6. Other Golden Eagles were noted from the Barre Falls hawk watch, Groton, Groveland as well as a bird photographed in Salisbury. A high count of 15 Black Vultures was observed in Blackstone on the Rhode Island border. It was a good year for Rough-legged Hawks with reports from 14 locations compared to five areas during the same period last year.

This winter is a good one for Snowy Owls. By mid-November Snowies were showing up all along our coastline. The last major irruption was four years ago during the winter of 2013–14. Four years is the typical cycle between Snowy Owl irruptions, which coincides with the peak of lemming numbers, their preferred food source. During those years when lemmings are plentiful Snowy Owls will breed and raise young. There were reports this period from 14 locations, with a single day high of 16 individuals at Plum Island on December 18. The Greater Boston CBC found 12 birds, with eight of them at Logan Airport. Two Snowies at Drumlin Farm, Lincoln, were the only inland reports. In mid-December a Barn Owl was found roosting in a garage in Lexington. Barn Owls are unusual away from Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket. Long-eared Owls were reported from six locations with multiple birds in Essex and Lexington.

November in Massachusetts can be very exciting and this November was just that! Strong winds from the south at the end of October caused a sort of reverse migration redirecting migrants to the Northeast. This was especially notable on Cape Cod with many reports of vireos and warblers that should have been long gone from our area. Many of these were still being seen up until the snowstorm and frigid weather that arrived on December 9. White-eyed Vireos were reported from 19 locations totaling at least 28 individuals. (During the same period last year there were only two individuals.) Twenty-five species of wood warblers were noted during the period. Exceptionally late dates included a Blue-winged Warbler on December 9, a Hooded Warbler on December 13, a Cape May Warbler on December 14, and a Magnolia Warbler on December 11. Other unusually late reports included a Blue-headed Vireo in Bourne on December 19, and a Wood Thrush in Chatham on December 17.

Vagrants are another November specialty. Many of these are young birds lost on their first migration or blown off course by surprise weather. There were two confirmed reports of Hammond's Flycatchers, just the sixth and seventh records for the state. Ash-throated Flycatchers are almost expected each fall, and this period there were four. A Bell's Vireo found in Fairhaven was the eighth state record and was enjoyed by many during its 16-day stay. There were two reports of Cave Swallows, the first noted in the state since 2015. A Townsend's Solitaire took up winter residence at Demarest Lloyd State Park in Dartmouth, and was still present in February. A MacGillivray's Warbler was found in Hadley, a first for Hampshire County. A Black-throated Gray Warbler played hide-and-seek for 17 days in Wakefield, frustrating many birders, though patience eventually rewarded most. Western Tanagers were noted from three localities and a male Painted Bunting was found in Mashpee. There was a mini invasion of Summer Tanagers, with reports of individuals from seven different locations, all documented with photographs.

A possible Western Meadowlark was photographed at Plum Island on November 21–23. Fall meadowlarks, especially in freshly molted plumage, are a notorious identification challenge and one in which call does not necessarily help (meadowlarks learn their songs, so can learn the "wrong" song from another meadowlark species). While some features of the Plum Island bird look good for Western (barred central tail feathers with a dark line along the shaft, and the amount of white in the tail), others are more suggestive of Eastern, suggesting the bird could even be a hybrid. There are no accepted records of Western Meadowlark for the state, although the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee (MARC) has yet to review a record of a meadowlark singing a Western song at Fort Hill, Eastham, in February 2014.

R. Stymeist

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