Neil Hayward and Robert H. Stymeist
November began with a high of 70 degrees on the second and went downhill from there. The average temperature for the month in Boston was 43 degrees, two degrees below normal. It rained on three of the four weekends, with the city recording 9.26 inches of rain for the month, 5.27 inches above normal. The season's first widespread winter storm on November 15–16 dumped more than half a foot of snow in many areas, including Easthampton with 9.5 inches and Concord with 9 inches. Plymouth escaped with 2.5 inches and Boston ended up with only a dusting before switching over to sleet and rain. A record-breaking cold snap swept through the region on the morning of November 22. It was the coldest Thanksgiving on record, with Worcester registering a frigid seven degrees, breaking the city's previous low temperature record of 11 degrees and Boston tying its lowest high temperature record for the day of 24 degrees.
Pine Grosbeak by Neil Dowling
December was warmer, with Boston recording an average of 37 degrees, two degrees above normal for the month. The high for Boston for the month was 65 degrees, appropriately recorded on December 21, the first day of winter. This reading broke the previous record for the date of 62 degrees set in 1959. The warm temperature was accompanied by moderate to heavy rain and strong winds. Forecasters issued flood warnings for the Connecticut River towns of Northampton and Montague. Winds were strong—a gust of 70 mph was recorded at Blue Hill in Milton.
GEESE THROUGH IBISES
Of the seven species of goose on the Massachusetts state list, Brant was the rarest this period; it was the only one that wasn't recorded. A Ross's Goose that spent a day in Egremont is the second record for Berkshire County; the first was in April 2017. A Pink-footed Goose was more obliging, spending a week in Ipswich in November. Pink-footed Goose was added to the state list in 1999 and, excluding a miss in 2013, has been recorded annually since 2009, with the lion's share coming from Essex County. Cackling Geese were well distributed with records from 10 counties, which is a new high for the period.
Two family groups of Tundra Swans that were photographed this period are the first December records since 2014. This tundra-nesting species is less than annual to the state and generally appears any time from November through April, with March perhaps being your best chance of finding one.
Freshwater duck numbers were generally low—except for Canvasback and Redhead, which seem to be having a good winter (see Figure 1). Canvasback were recorded from eight counties, which is the most for this period this century, with 175 seen on Nantucket tying the highest count this century. Despite such numbers, the species appears to have eschewed Fresh Pond this winter. This is the first time they've not returned to Cambridge since Bird Observer records began in 1973. (For a history of Canvasbacks at Fresh Pond see Miller 2017). The 23 Redheads observed on Nantucket are the best period count since 1983. Tufted Ducks were reported from four locations and King Eiders from 12 locations. The northern borealis subspecies of Common Eider scored a new high count of six (three males and three females) at Sandwich on December 24, doubling the previous high of three set in March 2013.
Figure 1. Canvasback and Redhead high counts in December in Massachusetts, 2000–2018. Data from eBird.org.
Hybrid ducks, offspring of the apparently undiscriminating Common Goldeneye, made the news this period. A male Bufflehead X Common Goldeneye returned to Orleans in December. This bird was first seen in April 2018 and is the only eBird record for the state. This hybrid is rare across the continent, with a number of recent multi-year records in the Montreal, Canada, area. Common Goldeneye X Hooded Mergansers were reported from Pembroke and Gloucester, both areas that have previously hosted this hybrid taxon. Three records of Common X Barrow's Goldeneye is above average.
A Western Grebe spent two weeks off the coast of Rockport. There are only seven accepted records this century, with most appearing, like this bird, in November. The only other East Coast report this winter was a bird off Virginia Beach, Virginia, in December.
There were four records of Chimney Swift this period, with two of those being the first November records for Suffolk County. This is only the fourth year this century in which this species has been recorded in November. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Cambridge on November 12 ties last year's late date. The latest date for the state is November 21, on Martha's Vineyard (1954) and Nahant (2009).
This may have been a good year for Common Gallinules, with birds, mostly immatures, being reported from four counties. Last year there were none for this period.
Late departures—some of them exceptionally late—were the theme with shorebirds this period. The two records of Piping Plover, at Eastham on December 13 and Nantucket on December 30, are the only recent (eBird) December records for the state. In fact, there were only three years this century in which the species has lingered until November, with the previous late date being November 30, 2002. There are, however, historical records of Piping Plover in January and February typically on Cape Cod, suggesting the species has overwintered or has at least attempted to do so (Veit and Petersen 1993). A Spotted Sandpiper in Harwich on December 16 is the latest date this century for Massachusetts, beating by one day the previous record set in 2015. The latest historical date appears to be a bird found at Chatham on January 3, 1976 (Veit and Petersen 1993). Solitary Sandpipers are rare in November—there were none last year—and this year's November 4 record is the latest since 2002. Two Red Phalaropes at Race Point on November 12 are notable.
This year will be remembered for the amazing flights of alcids. On December 16, Dovekies were seen streaming past Andrew's Point, Rockport, at a rate of over 100 per minute. The final count of 4,680 Dovekies seen that day crushed the previous recent record of 3,470 set on November 7, 2012. The Rockport number was quickly surpassed the following day at First Encounter Beach, Eastham, when at least 6,050 Dovekies were counted, flying past at 2,000 per hour. In fact, the number was probably closer to 7,000 extrapolating for gaps in observer attendance that morning. These numbers are historically significant. It's been a generation since the legendary flights of Dovekies in the 1950s and 1960s, including 12,000 at Chatham on November 2, 1969. The flight past Andrew's Point on December 16 also set a new state record of 438 Common Murres (the previous high of 420 was set on December 12, 2002), and produced thirty-four Atlantic Puffins, the third highest count for the state, and a new high for November.
The larid highlight of the period was the return of an old friend: vik581641, the band number of a European "Common" or Mew Gull at Lynn Beach on November 24 and again at the end of December. The band has allowed us to track this individual's life history: it was banded as a chick in Akureyrarflugvöllur, northern Iceland, on June 23, 2013 and first appeared in Massachusetts at Lynn Beach in February 2017, returning to the same beach in January and February the following year. It's now back at the same spot for a third winter. A Mew Gull, perhaps the same individual, was photographed at Rockport on November 27. A Herring X Great Black-backed Gull photographed in Sharon on December 3 is a first for Norfolk County and the first for the state away from the coast. Black Skimmers were reported from two locations and represent only the fourth year in which this species has been found in November.
Pacific Loons were photographed from Provincetown and Rockport, with the latter being the first December record since 2005. All four species of the regular shearwaters (Cory's, Sooty, Great and Manx) were reported this period, consistent with a recent trend of lingering later into the year. Numbers this year, however, were lower than in recent years.
A pair of American White Pelicans were reported in the Newburyport area on November 30 and were then photographed flying from Ipswich the following day. This pair may have quickly tired of each other; reports from neighboring states in December were only of single birds. This species is annual to this state, although would have been missed this year but for this last-minute record.
Herons followed the lethargic lead of shorebirds and similarly stayed late into the season. A Great Egret at Eastham on December 31 is the latest since 2014. A Snowy Egret in Dennis on December 27 is the first December record since 2012. And Green Herons in Brookline and Barnstable are the first November records since 2014. November is typically a good month for Cattle Egrets and this year did not disappoint: they were reported from five counties (a high for the period), with four birds on Nantucket on November 23 being the latest state record since 2013.
VULTURES THROUGH DICKCISSEL
November is traditionally one of the best months for eagle watching. On November 4, migratory conditions were ideal along the ridges of the Wapack Range, producing 38 Bald Eagles during a six-hour watch from the summit of Mount Watatic. An above-average six Golden Eagles were reported in November. According to Paul Roberts, founder of the New England Hawk Watch, there was an unusually heavy movement of Golden Eagles early in the season throughout eastern North America. Early and heavy snowfall in eastern Canada and northern New England were likely contributors to the higher than usual numbers. Most sightings of this species are typically flybys, with birds unlikely to stick around. Breaking tradition was a bird photographed at Dunback Meadow, Lexington, that was present for two days. The Greenfield Christmas Bird Count (CBC) tallied a record 27 Bald Eagles on December 30, almost double the previous high set in 2017. Other noteworthy raptor reports included a high count of 16 Red-shouldered Hawks over Mount Watatic, Rough-legged Hawks from nine locations with three present most of December on Plum Island, and a late Osprey in Marshfield on December 26.
This was another good flight year for Snowy Owls with reports from 11 coastal locations. The first Snowy Owl of the period was noted from Cuttyhunk Island on November 1, nearly two weeks before the others began appearing. Norman Smith tallied 10 Snowy Owls and banded four during the Greater Boston CBC on December 16. Barred Owls were reported from over 35 locations, many of them in poor condition; they could be seen hunting during the day, a behavior typically associated with extreme hunger. Not surprisingly, many were found along roadways, victims of vehicle collisions. The highlight for the period was the discovery of a Boreal Owl on Nantucket, the first sighting in the state since a bird found in Topsfield on January 28, 2017.
November is typically one of the most exciting months for local birders with the possibility of far-flung rarities. This year the conditions were less than optimal: rain fell on three of the four weekends and much colder than normal temperatures caused early freezing of most small ponds. Last year, persistent and strong southerly winds produced a reverse migration, in which 24 White-eyed Vireos were reported from across the state. In contrast, this year the winds were out of the north and east, and only three White-eyed Vireos were reported. Despite the less-than-ideal conditions a number of vagrants brightened birders spirits. A Gray Kingbird was reported on Nantucket on November 4. This is only the third state record following previous records from Aquinnah in 2006 and a very cooperative bird in Hyannis that was seen for 12 days in October and November 2016. A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was noted from Salisbury on November 8. There are seven previous reports of this species during the period. A Sage Thrasher was found and photographed at Low Beach, Nantucket on November 25–26, which was only the fourth state record and the first for the island. A LeConte's Sparrow was discovered in Lakeville on the Taunton-Middleboro CBC on December 30 and is the fifth record for the period. A Black-throated Gray Warbler was found at Phillips Beach in Swampscott on November 11. This individual delighted scores of birders as it foraged in the sand and among the rocks, sometimes just inches away. Sadly, the show was over five days later when the bird was snatched up by a Cooper's Hawk. Rounding out the rarities was the discovery of a brightly-plumaged, and considerably less cooperative, male Painted Bunting in Newton.
Early reports of winter finches came in during October as predicted by Ron Pittaway's annual winter finch distribution report (Pittaway 2018). Sightings continued into this period with increased numbers of Evening Grosbeak, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, and Common Redpoll. Pine Grosbeaks began appearing in small numbers in scattered locations including upwards of 42 in Windsor in Berkshire County. Red Crossbills were noted in over 30 locations with as many as 90 individuals present at Moose Hill Sanctuary in Sharon. In contrast, only a few Bohemian Waxwings were reported. A single Hoary Redpoll was documented among a group of over 80 Common Redpolls in Harvard.
- Miller, J. B. 2017. Canvasbacks at Fresh Pond: Coming or Going? Bird Observer 45 (4): 238–246.
- Pittaway, R. 2018. Winter Finch Forecast 2018–2019. Available online at http://jeaniron.ca/2018/wff18.htm
- Veit, R. R., and W. R. Petersen. 1993. Birds of Massachusetts. Lincoln, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Audubon Society.