August 2019

Vol. 47, No. 4

Bird Sightings: March–April 2019

Neil Hayward and Robert H. Stymeist

They say meteorological spring starts on March 1, but this year the month came in like a lion with a weekend storm bringing over a foot of snow to Boston. Despite the unseasonably cold weather and the subzero wind chills in the first eight days of the month, the average temperature for March ended up near average at 39 degrees. A high temperature of 70 degrees on the last day of the month coincided with a peak gust of 53 mph from the south. Rainfall in March totaled 2.95 inches, 1.37 inches below normal. Snowfall in Boston was 13.5 inches with most of that—12.6 inches—noted on the first weekend of the month.

Sandhill Cranes by Neil Dowling

The start of April was similarly unrepresentative of the coming month: a sunny start was followed by exceptionally dismal weather with 21 days of measurable precipitation, the highest for any month since recordkeeping began in 1872. The previous record was 19 days set in April 1912 and December 2007. Although the rain may have felt relentless, the actual amount did not break the April record: the total for the month was 6.52 inches, well below the high of 9.57 inches that fell in Boston in 2004. The temperature averaged 52 degrees, 4 degrees above normal. The high temperature of 77 degrees was recorded on April 19 during a stretch of warm weather from April 13–21 that averaged 68.6 degrees.

R. Stymeist


A Ross's Goose was photographed on the western bank of the Connecticut River in mid-March. This has been a good winter for this diminutive goose, with records in January and February in Marblehead and Plum Island, respectively. In contrast, despite being reported in three counties in March, this has been a poor winter for Greater White-fronted Goose. The species was unrecorded in April for the first time since 2012.

Brant is a familiar visitor to our winter shores. The pale-bellied hrota subspecies breeds on Baffin Island and neighboring eastern Nunavut Province and winters on the Atlantic Coast south to the Carolinas. The less familiar nigricans or "Black Brant" breeds in northwestern Canada and Alaska and winters on the Pacific coast and is a rare visitor to Massachusetts. Black Brant has a much darker belly than hrota with a more prominent white neck collar. This year up to two birds were photographed between April 18–19 at Plymouth Beach. While currently a subspecies, Black Brant may be a future candidate for full species status. Genetic analysis suggests that hrota and nigricans are more distinct from each other than, for example, Ross's and Snow geese.

Flocks of adult Tundra Swans were reported in mid-March from Bridgewater and Turners Falls. The latter consisted of 19 birds, which appears to be a new high count for the spring. Historically, this species has been more numerous in the fall, with a high of 29 birds in Brimfield on November 20, 2010.

The Eurasian subspecies of Green-winged Teal, Anas crecca crecca, is annual to the state, typically appearing between January and April. This year the first sighting wasn't until March 17, when a single bird was photographed at Nine Acre Corner in Concord. Four days later a bird appeared in Harwich, Cape Cod. Considered by some authorities to be a separate species—Common Teal—the Eurasian form does interbreed with the American form, A. c. carolinensis, and such intergrades are about as common here as the pure Eurasian form. Indeed, the same flock of Green-winged Teal in Concord that harbored the Eurasian form also held an intergrade.

This winter was a good one for unusual duck hybrids with most holding on until the beginning of this period. The Mallard x Northern Pintail hybrid, a first for Suffolk County, continued in Brookline until the first day of March and the male Bufflehead x Common Goldeneye hybrid was last seen in Orleans on March 3. Also on March 3, a Common x Barrow's Goldeneye hybrid was found in Newburyport Harbor.

For many species, spring migration this year was early to exceptionally early and this was particularly so for the goatsuckers (see Figure 1). Common Nighthawks are rarely reported in April, and this year's dual report of singles on Nantucket and Manomet on April 24 are the earliest records this century, beating the 2017 date of April 28. Historically, though, this species has been reported as early as March 14 in 1925 and 1966 (Veit and Petersen, 1998). Two Eastern Whip-poor-wills in Middleton on April 4 are also the earliest this century, beating the 2002 record of April 13 by over a week. With a previous early record of April 12, 1957, (Veit and Petersen, 1998) this year's record may also set a new state early date. Chimney Swifts arrived on April 15, three days earlier than average this century, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds appeared the next day, eight days earlier than their average.

Common Gallinules were reported from four counties in April, which is well above average for the start of the breeding season. Common Gallinule is a rare breeder and uncommon migrant in the state, typically appearing around May 2. Sandhill Cranes were widely reported around the state, consistent with the recent range expansion of this species into the Northeast.

Most species of shorebird arrived early this year. On April 10, Semipalmated Plovers appeared 17 days ahead of the average arrival date this century. Other early-returning shorebird species included: Willet (9 days early on April 6), Solitary Sandpiper (7 days early on April 7), Spotted Sandpiper (6 days early on April 11), and Whimbrel (15 days early April 17). American Oystercatcher (March 15) and Pectoral Sandpiper (March 31), in contrast, were late by about a week.

A female Ruff, or Reeve, a nationally rare shorebird from Eurasia, was found at Newbury on March 30. Ruff is almost annual with spring birds typically appearing between mid-April and mid-May. This year's bird may have been the earliest record for the state, with only one other documented March record at Ipswich on March 31, 1999. Unusual for the period was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a shorebird that we normally see only on its return fall migration. In fact, there are only three previous records for spring birds: Newburyport, May 12–13, 1971, Bolton, April 28, 1984, and Monomoy, May 10, 2005. As does the Ruff, this year's Buff-breasted sets a new early date for the species in the state. A Marbled Godwit at Eastham on April 23–25 is the first April record for 12 years.

A spring pelagic trip out of Gloucester to Stellwagen Bank on March 9 produced two Dovekies and two Thick-billed Murres, together with double-digit numbers of Razorbills and Black Guillemots in offshore waters. A single Atlantic Puffin buzzed past Andrews Point on April 26, the first April sighting since 2013.

The larid highlight of the period was an adult California Gull found at Turners Falls on March 17. This is only the sixth record for the state, and the first since a second-winter bird was recorded on Nantucket on January 1, 2006. Like the Nantucket bird, this one was also a one-day wonder. California Gull was first recorded in Massachusetts in Newburyport on April 24, 1988, among a field of Herring and Ring-billed gulls. The more expected larid rarities were all hosted by Cape Cod. Up to three adult Black-headed Gulls were at Hyannis, and two adult Little Gulls and an adult Mew Gull were at Provincetown. A hybrid Herring Gull x Glaucous Gull ("Nelson's Gull") was seen at Cohasset, the third record for this taxon in Norfolk County this century.

Figure 1. Arrival dates of Common Nighthawk and Eastern Whip-poor-will in Massachusetts, 2000–2019. Data from

Caspian Terns are regular but uncommon spring migrants through Massachusetts. A bird at Turners Falls on April 9 is the second earliest record for the state, after an April 6 record in 2002. The average arrival date this century is April 20. A Roseate Tern at Provincetown on April 14 appears to be the earliest record for the state, almost three weeks ahead of the average arrival date of May 3.

A Little Egret was found at Plum Island on April 25, thirty years after the first US record was discovered at the same location. Since then, Little Egret has been an irregular vagrant up and down the East Coast, although this is the first record for Massachusetts since June 2014. Two days after this year's Plum Island sighting a Little Egret (presumably the same bird) was spotted at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center near Portland, Maine, an area that has hosted this species since 2011. Little Egrets are thought to have crossed the Atlantic at sub-Saharan latitudes, helped by northeast trade winds. The first continental records were in 1954 from Trinidad and subsequently Newfoundland. This southerly route across the Atlantic, followed by migration north, is similar to the route proposed for Cattle Egrets in their colonization of the Americas. Little Egrets banded in Spain have been recovered from islands in the Caribbean supporting such a model.

Great and Snowy egrets returned to the state about a day earlier than average, while a Least Bittern at Topsfield on April 23 was almost two weeks early.

N. Hayward


Parking lot 1 at Plum Island is one of a number of traditional hawkwatch sites where volunteers monitor spring raptor migration. This year hawkwatchers reported good numbers of Turkey Vultures from mid-March. During the month of April, 132 Northern Harriers and 48 Sharp-shinned Hawks were tallied passing over Plum Island. American Kestrel is perhaps the most anticipated species at this coastal hawkwatch, where this year a total of 341 were logged. Broad-winged Hawk migration was well under way in the state in mid-April, although numbers are typically much lower than in the fall. The hawkwatch at Barre Falls, in Central Massachusetts, tallied over one hundred Broadwingeds on April 23. Other noteworthy reports included sightings of Golden Eagle in Barre, Newbury, and Ipswich. Photographs of the Ipswich and Newbury birds suggest they were the same individual. A pair of Bald Eagles took up residency in Brewster. This was the first documented nest found on Cape Cod since the last known breeding Bald Eagles in Sandwich in 1905.

Barred Owls continued to be reported from many locations during the day with sightings from over 40 localities. There were reports of nesting Great Horned Owls in several towns. The last reported Snowy Owl was a bird at Logan Airport on April 16.

March and April signal the start of migration, although this year's birders were frustrated with the weather; there was only one weekend during the period free from precipitation. Swallows started showing up in small numbers in mid-March and were back in full force by mid-April. By late March the woods were alive with the songs of Winter Wrens and Brown Creepers, soon joined by the Eastern Phoebes and Blue-headed Vireos. Spring had arrived!

The first migrant fallouts of the season occurred on the mornings of April 9 and April 14 with numerous reports from across the state of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrushes, Chipping and Savannah sparrows, and Pine and Palm warblers. At Plum Island on April 9 there were 37 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, 76 Northern Flickers, 27 Eastern Phoebes, and 8 Winter Wrens. A warm spell from April 13–24 held many migrants in place as a cold front lingered to our south. A major fallout on the evening of April 23 opened the floodgates with birders across the state reporting significant movement. The banding station on Plum Island was busy with 12 Blue-headed Vireos and 14 Hermit Thrushes, while Manomet processed 30 Chipping Sparrows and two male Summer Tanagers. Other high counts noted on April 24 included 93 Chipping Sparrows in Blackstone, 50 Savannah Sparrows in Westport, 45 Purple Finches in Deerfield, and a big push of Yellow-rumped Warblers, with 200 individuals reported from Plum Island and 135 from Deerfield. Rarities that day included Golden-winged Warblers from Orleans and Longmeadow, a Summer Tanager at Plum Island, a Blue Grosbeak at Mount Auburn Cemetery, and an early Cape May Warbler photographed in Brookline.

The mega highlight of the period was a state first: a Black-whiskered Vireo at the Edgartown Golf Club on Martha's Vineyard on April 21. This is the seventh record north of Florida and only the second north of Virginia, after a bird last year at Sakonnet Point, Rhode Island, on May 21. Intriguingly, since Edgartown is only 35 miles as the vireo flies from Sakonnet Point, this may be the same returning individual.

R. Stymeist


  • Veit, R. R., and W. R. Petersen. 1993. Birds of Massachusetts. Lincoln, Mass. Massachusetts Audubon Society.

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