June 2018

Vol. 46, No. 3

Bird Sightings: January–February 2018

Neil Hayward and Robert H. Stymeist

Razorbills by Lanny McDowell

Birders who were geared up for a new year of birding awoke to some bone-chilling temperatures; in Boston, the high for the day was a raw 13 degrees, and the western part of the state and the hill towns of Worcester County saw in the New Year with temperatures below zero. A powerful winter storm on January 4 brought blizzard conditions up the East Coast from Virginia to Maine. Meteorologists dubbed this a "bomb cyclone": masses of cold air colliding with warm air to produce hurricane force winds. Gusts of 76 miles per hour were noted on Nantucket and 75 miles per hour in Wellfleet. Coastal areas experienced extreme high tides—associated with the super moon on January 1—and major flooding was noted in Scituate and Marshfield causing severe damage to homes. The high tide in Boston reached an all-time high of 15.16 feet, breaking the previous record of 15.1 feet set during the Blizzard of 1978. The bomb cyclone brought snow too: 13.4 inches in Boston, 16.6 inches in Worcester, and over 15 inches in parts of the south coast where Taunton exceeded 17 inches. Despite the cold start, temperatures for the month of January ended near normal with an average of 29 degrees. The high in Boston was 61 degrees on January 13 and the low was minus two on January 7. Rainfall totaled 4.92 inches in Boston, 1.56 inches above average, and the total snowfall was 17.8 inches, most of which fell during the January 4 storm.

February opened with a mild reading of 46 degrees. The month averaged 38 degrees, six degrees above normal. The high for the month was 72 degrees on February 21, the second highest reading in record keeping. (The previous record of 73 degrees was set just last year!) Don't let the mild temperatures fool you though; on Groundhog Day, Phil saw his shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter! Rainfall totaled 3.77 inches, almost an inch above normal. Boston recorded 8.3 inches of snow during the month, most of it falling during a fast-moving storm on February 17–18. Snowfall totals were highest north and west of Boston with areas in Middlesex and Essex Counties receiving more than seven inches. The highest snowfall was nine inches in Haverhill.

R. Stymeist


No longer a news flash these days: all eight species of goose on the Massachusetts State List were reported this period. Ross's Geese were found in four counties, including the continuing Boston bird from December, which represented the first record for Suffolk County. The Barnacle Goose in Westfield held on for the first day of the year before disappearing and then possibly reappearing a couple of days later on the Connecticut coast. A Pink-footed Goose in Berkley/Dighton in January and February is the first record for Bristol County. This area, along the banks of the Taunton River, also hosted some of the many Greater White-fronted Geese reported this period as well as a Cackling Goose.

This continues to be an excellent winter for King Eider, with birds reported from at least seven locations, including five individuals in Rockport. The male Tufted Duck continued through the period on Nantucket.

The rest of the duck news was mainly for subspecies aficionados. A male Eurasian Green-winged Teal was photographed at Peabody on February 20. This subspecies, crecca, considered by the International Ornithological Union (IOU) to be a full species, is recorded annually in the state with birds sighted from November through June. Only the male—with a horizontal white stripe along the lower scapulars and lacking the vertical white stripe on the breast—is separable in the field from our native subspecies carolinensis.

Flocks of Common Eider continue to receive scrutiny from birders on the lookout for the rare northern borealis subspecies. Northern Common Eiders breed in Greenland and Arctic Canada and winter around Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. There are reports as far south as Long Island, New York, and over a dozen reports from Massachusetts. At least three birds were reported this period: a male and female along the Cape Cod Canal and a female in Rockport. Borealis eiders are relatively easy to separate from our regular dresseri subspecies—the males have brighter yellow (not green) bills with more white (and less green) in the face, whereas females are grayer than dresseri. Importantly, in both sexes the bill tapers to sharp points at the base, unlike the more rounded frontal lobes of dresseri. Females of the aptly named sedentaria subspecies of Hudson Bay are similarly cold gray in color, but have yet to be shown to reach the East Coast.

Winter storms brought impressive numbers of alcids close to shore. Flying past Andrews Point in Rockport, 1,972 Dovekies were counted on February 25. This is the third highest count this century, with the record going to 3,470 in November 2012, also from Andrews Point. These numbers are dwarfed, however, by the historical "wrecks" of the 1950s and 1960s when upwards of 10,000 birds appeared after winter storms. Razorbills put on a similarly impressive show, with an exceptional 8,500 spotted at Race Point on January 27. Atlantic Puffins were well represented including a rare chaseable bird sitting off Bass Rocks in Gloucester on February 10.

Lynn Beach was the place to be in February to "mews" over rare gull subspecies. This larid hot spot provided an almost unique opportunity to compare gulls from opposite sides of the planet. A European Mew Gull or "Common Gull", Larus canus canus, was present from February 18–24. A ring on the bird showed this to be the same Common Gull spotted last February on the same beach. The bird was banded as a chick on June 23, 2013, in Akureyrarflugvöllur, Iceland. On February 19, a second Mew Gull was found. The larger size, darker mantle color, greater spotting on the head and neck, thicker and yellower bill, paler eye, and the "string of pearls" wing pattern indicated the Kamchatka subspecies L. c. kamtschatschensis from Northeast Asia. This too may be a returning visitor to Lynn Beach: it closely matches "Bird A", the smaller of two possible Kamchatka Mew Gulls present in March 2015, and may even be the same Kamchatka Gull seen at this location as far back as 2009. Both the Kamchatka and Common gull subspecies have darker mantles than our native Mew Gull, L. c. brachyrhynchus, which breeds in the northwest of the continent. To add to the confusion, there is a fourth subspecies of Mew Gull, heinei, from Central Russia. Although never recorded in North America, its similarity to kamtschatschensis means that we probably can't rule it out, hence the conservative acceptance of records of the latter by the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee as kamtschatschensis/heinei.

Digital photography and eBird have made it much easier to stalk individual birds. Gull sleuths were able to reconstruct the flight plan of a Slaty-backed Gull originally discovered at Fresh Pond on February 16. Three days later the same bird was spotted again, this time loafing around with the gulls in Gloucester Harbor. It didn't hang around there for long; four days after visiting Cape Ann, the bird had upgraded its diet of fish for trash when it was relocated 127 miles northeast (as the gull flies) at a landfill site in Augusta, Maine. Slaty-backed Gulls breed in coastal northeast Asia and Alaska. This century has seen a marked increase in sightings in the Lower 48 (see Figure 1): Florida accepted its first record in 2002, New Hampshire in 2003, and Massachusetts in December 2007, when three birds were found in the space of only two days. A total of six records have now been accepted for the state, with the most recent being an adult at Wellfleet in January 2012.

Figure 1.
Increased occurrence of Slaty-backed Gull in California (solid line), Massachusetts (dashed line), Texas (dotted line) and Britain (double line). Although Texas and California recorded their first individual in the 1990s, it wasn't until the 2000s that a pattern of repeated vagrancy was established. This is also when birds started to appear in Massachusetts and elsewhere. There is even a record of this northeast Asian gull from Britain (London) in 2011. (2018 records for Massachusetts and California are provisional and yet to be reviewed and published by the relevant state committees.)

If you're sliding down the slippery slope that is gull identification (you're still reading!), then hybrid gulls provide the ultimate in esoterica. This period saw three interesting examples, all adults and probably offspring from hybridization with Herring Gulls: a Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull and a Great Black-backed x Herring Gull, both at Race Point; and a Glaucous x Herring Gull (also known as "Nelson's Gull") in Lowell. Despite suffering the ignominy of being downgraded from a full species to a subspecies (of Iceland Gull) Thayer's Gull still shows its face in the state and this period saw two different adults at Race Point and a first winter bird at Gloucester.

Pacific Loon still makes headline news in the state despite multiple birds reported each winter. Its identification, however, remains a challenge; distant loons are frequently misreported as Pacific. Indeed, away from Race Point, the go-to place in the state to find this vagrant, the number of misidentified reports of Pacific Loon significantly exceeds that of genuine ones. Birders are encouraged to take photos of any suspected Pacific Loon—even to rule out Arctic Loon for which there are records as far east as Ohio and Vermont. This period at least one Pacific Loon was recorded off Race Point.

N. Hayward


Raptor highlights for the period included continuing high numbers of Black Vultures, especially in southwest Berkshire County where as many as 35 were counted in Sheffield. Cumberland Farms is a traditional winter hot spot for birds of prey and some high counts this period included: 11 Northern Harriers, five Rough-legged Hawks, and five Short-eared Owls. Golden Eagles were noted from four localities, three more than last year. It was a big year for Snowy Owls with reports from nearly 50 locations, with a maximum of seven noted on Plum Island during January. The most bizarre report involving a Snowy Owl was one struck by a car inside the Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, Jr. Tunnel in Boston; it was captured and taken to Tufts Wildlife Clinic where it unfortunately died a few hours later. In Lexington, up to eight Long-eared Owls continued through the period. This area has a history of hosting winter owl roosts; in 1977 and 1981 a total of 22 Long-eareds were tallied. For more information, see the 1982 article by John W. Andrews "A winter roost of Long-eared Owls" in Bird Observer 10 (1): 13–22. A dead Barn Owl was picked up in this same grove on January 8, a victim of the blizzard in early January.

A winter roost of crows is an impressive sight. In Lawrence, an estimated 14,300 were tallied in February. These communal roosts may return to a specific location for a few years or may shift elsewhere in response to changing conditions. The crow roost in Lawrence has been studied on many occasions; see the recent 2018 article "A History of Winter Crow Roosts and a Visit to a Roost in Lawrence, Massachusetts" by Dana Duxbury-Fox, Bird Observer 46(1): 22–31.

The Truro Christmas Bird Count on January 2 reported some high counts of lingering passerines and an unusually high concentration of Red-breasted Nuthatches. A total of 142 were noted whereas other areas of the state reported very few. The winter storm of January 4, bringing several inches of snow and ice, surely had an effect on some of these hearty birds.

The Townsend's Solitaire first reported on November 12 was still present at Demarest Lloyd State Park in Dartmouth through at least mid-February. A Summer Tanager, first noted on December 8, continued at a feeder in Plymouth through most of January. Other unusual birds of the period included a Lark Sparrow in Concord, a Lincoln's Sparrow at Manomet, and an Indigo Bunting in Washington, which was a first February record for Berkshire County.

R. Stymeist

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