April 2020

Vol. 48, No. 2

Bird Sightings: November-December 2019

Neil Hayward and Robert H. Stymeist

Editor's Note: For three decades, Fay Vale was the Regional Compiler for Eastern Massachusetts and was a major contributor to the records of bird sightings in Bird Observer. Her work for and dedication to Bird Observer and the rest of the Massachusetts birding community—along with her passion for birds and birding—will be greatly missed. These Bird Sightings reports would not be possible without contributions from local birders and regional compilers. This period we welcome three new regional compilers: Joseph Bourget for Worcester County, Sebastian Jones for Suffolk County, and Lisa Schibley for Plymouth County. They join Joshua Rose (Western Massachusetts) and Mark Faherty (Cape Cod and the Islands). Other regular contributors include Blair Nikula, Bob Stymeist, Glenn d'Entremont, Jason Forbes, Jim Berry, Marj Rines, Mark Lynch, and Trevor Lloyd-Evans (Manomet banding). We thank all these birders for their regular reports. If you are interested in contributing to this column, either through your own sightings or helping to compile the sightings of others, please get in touch with me at

November's high temperature of 72 degrees was recorded on the first day of the month. Thereafter, temperatures went downhill, dropping 19 degrees to a high of 51 on November 2. The only other day of the month that exceeded 60 degrees was November 26 with a high of 63 degrees. The low temperature in Boston was 33 degrees on November 13, a new record low temperature surpassing the previous low of 36 degrees set in 1874. The month in Boston averaged 47 degrees, two degrees above normal. Precipitation in Boston during the month was 3.37 inches, a little over a half-inch less than normal for November. Areas in the Berkshires and the Worcester hills received 1–2 inches of snow during a winter storm on November 13.


Holding true that meteorological winter begins on December 1, the month opened with a two-day wintery blast that brought the region its first significant snowfall. Hardest hit were towns in Franklin County; Rowe and Ashfield recorded 16 and 14 inches of snow, respectively. Up in Essex County, Haverhill reported 11.5 inches, while the Cape and Islands experienced a quick turnover to rain. Boston's Logan Airport reported just 1.2 inches of snow. The high for the month in Boston was 63 degrees on December 10 and the low was 15 degrees on December 19. The month's average temperature was 43 degrees, nearly five degrees above normal for December.

R. Stymeist


This period Massachusetts scored an anserine octofecta: all eight species of goose on the Massachusetts state list were reported. One of the rarest, a Barnacle Goose, was present at Milton from November 21 to December 3. On its last day, it hopped over the county line to visit Franklin Park, adding a new tick to Suffolk County. An amazing three records of Pink-footed Geese included a first for Plymouth County. This species was added to the state list in 1999 and, like Barnacle Goose, has been reported annually in the state since 2014. A Ross's Goose present at Mashpee from November 11–15 was a first for Barnstable County. This diminutive species, which has been annual in the state since 2008, has now been recorded in 12 of the state's 14 counties. The race is now on between Bristol and Plymouth counties not to be last. Greater White-fronted Geese were reported from seven counties, a record high for the period.

Tundra Swans were recorded in five locations. A party of 14 birds (12 adults and 2 young) that visited Plum Island on November 15 were long overdue; it was the first record for Essex County since 1996.

Last winter was a good one for Redheads; the 23 observed on Nantucket was the best period count since 1983. This year was even better with 44 Redheads on the island on the final day of the year. This recent uptick is still far short of the historical counts for Nantucket; the high count in November 1976 was 800 (Veit and Petersen, 1993). Canvasback numbers were similarly healthy with 92 on Nantucket, although down from last year's century-high record of 175. A careful count of 1,880 Ring-necked Ducks at Richmond Pond, Pittsfield, on November 11 represents a new high-count record for the species, beating out the 1,700 recorded in Pittsfield in November 2016. Letting the Aythya side down was the single drake Tufted Duck on Nantucket in December. It was the only record for the period, which is now below average for this annual rarity.

Hybrids hogged the duck headlines again. Three hybrid species were recorded, all the progeny of the undiscerning Common Goldeneye. A male Bufflehead X Common Goldeneye hybrid returned to Orleans where it first appeared in April 2018, and then wintered there in 2018–2019. This is an uncommon hybrid, with only a handful of records scattered across the continent. The Orleans bird—assuming it's the same returning individual—represents the only eBird record for this taxon in Massachusetts. A Common Goldeneye X Hooded Merganser hybrid was back at Pembroke, which first hosted this duck in 2017, with another bird reported from Lincoln. Common X Barrow's Goldeneye hybrids were reported from Falmouth and Nantucket.

Cuckoos seemed reluctant to leave the state at the end of the year. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo found at Quincy on November 14 was late, although still a week short of the record late date of November 21 shared by 1954 and 2009. A Black-billed Cuckoo appeared at Cuttyhunk Island on November 2 and represents only the second November record this century. The late date for Black-billed Cuckoo in Massachusetts is November 20, 1955. The most surprising lingerer was a Chuck-will's-widow photographed on Cuttyhunk Island on November 13. Prior to this year, there had been only one other November record for the state: a bird found dead on a Dartmouth driveway on November 15, 1975. Their scarcity in fall is no doubt a reflection of the extreme difficulty of detecting such a cryptic species when not calling.

Three Rufous Hummingbirds are above average for the period. These western vagrants are annual to the state, having been recorded every year since 1994 except for one miss in 2009.

A Purple Gallinule was photographed in Harwich on November 4, the third record for the year. Purple Gallinules are prodigious globetrotters. Massachusetts hosts these vagrants every two out of three years on average, with the bulk appearing in October. Common Gallinules were found in four counties, including a first December record for Plymouth County.

How many of us look at a muddy winter field and imagine how much better it would look with a Northern Lapwing sitting on it? Carolyn Longworth was lucky enough not to have to use her imagination. On November 28, while birding in Fairhaven, Carolyn "heard [an] unfamiliar cry and found [a] large plover with crest." Sadly, the plover decided to share neither its unfamiliar cry nor its crest with anyone else; it was not relocated despite extensive searching. This is the first record in North America since December 2014, when a bird was found in Canada near Saint John, New Brunswick. The Fairhaven record represents the seventh for Massachusetts and a first for Bristol County.

Other shorebird highlights included single American Avocets at Plum Island and Nantucket in November. Late shorebirds included an American Golden-Plover at Eastham on November 26, one day shy of the latest record for the state, two rare November records of Piping Plovers in Barnstable and Nantucket, and two records of Marbled Godwits, the first December records since 2011.

Alcids put on a good show for the start of the winter. A pelagic trip on December 21 out of Seabrook, New Hampshire, dipped into Essex County waters to log an impressive 360 Dovekies, which is one of the largest December hauls in recent memory. The boat also picked up five Atlantic Puffins in the same waters. A pale Black Guillemot, present off Provincetown at the end of December, appears to be of the Arctic-breeding mandtii subspecies. This taxon is rare on the East Coast, with the only other records from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Long Island, New York. If confirmed it would be a first record for Massachusetts.

An immature Franklin's Gull was in the Milton area on November 22–24 and represents the first record for Norfolk County. The bird was named after the Arctic explorer, Sir John Franklin (1786–1847) on whose expedition in 1827 the first specimen was taken. Franklin died, along with his entire crew of 134 men, on his fourth and final Arctic expedition in 1847. His two boats, Erebus and Terror, became icebound while navigating the Northwest Passage in present-day Nunavut. Though not an ornithologist, the explorer and officer of the Royal Navy was also memorialized by the naming of the Franklin's Spruce Grouse, which has since been relegated to a subspecies.

The other larid highlight of the period was an adult Mew Gull found at Somerset on November 22. Not only is this the first record for Bristol County, but—assuming correct identification—would be the third confirmed eBird record of the American-breeding brachyrhynchus subspecies. The other two confirmed state records of brachyrhynchus appeared in mid-April in 2017 and 2018. A Herring Gull X Glaucous Gull hybrid (known as Nelson's Gull) was photographed on Lake Massapoag on November 19 and appears to be a second record for Norfolk County. Late Black Skimmers on Nantucket and Quincy represented the first November records for Nantucket and Plymouth counties.

One of the biggest surprises this period was the discovery of single Wood Storks, in Sutton and Eastham. On the same day that the bird in Sutton was rescued by animal control, a Wood Stork was photographed over Block Island, Rhode Island. Prior to this year, there had been about ten records of the species in the state. More expected these days was a Brown Booby on Nantucket on November 15 and a Brown Pelican at Wellfleet on December 8.

Cattle Egrets were well-recorded at the end of the year with Berkshire and Suffolk counties picking up their first November records. White-faced Ibis, meanwhile, is on a mission to smash all historical records. Last period we reported a sighting in Sterling on October 19–21 that beat the previous late date of July 25 by almost three months. This period a bird was found in Somerset on November 15. Finder Matthew Eckerson commented, "Crazy bird and experience! Also a long hoped for overdue first county record. Just shows what can show up if you bird your patch faithfully." It was the only November record on the East Coast north of Florida.

N. Hayward


November is one of the best months to see Golden Eagles in the state. A total of seven were reported during the period, one more than last year. The first Rough-legged Hawks return during November, with reports this year from seven locations, including two birds at Cumberland Farms in Middleboro. Other raptor highlights included two well-documented reports of Northern Goshawk, 11 Bald Eagles at Quabbin Reservoir, and Black Vultures in a roost at Westport where they outnumbered Turkey Vultures 27 to 7. Nick Tepper and Will Sweet had a memorable night at Myles Standish State Park in Plymouth where they logged a total of 21 Northern Saw-whet Owls, many of which they photographed.

November often harbors the most potential for birders to discover vagrants. Topping the list this year was the continuing Massachusetts first—a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, first discovered in Hadley on October 23. This West Coast Empidonax flycatcher continued for 41 days until the state's first major snowstorm on December 2. Vagrancy is often the result of bad weather; strong southerly winds can produce a reverse migration and return southbound birds back north, as well as sending southerly species like Yellow-throated Warbler and Painted Bunting to our region. This fall and early winter saw an unprecedented number of Painted Buntings; a total of 11 were reported, eight of which were female or immature birds. An Ash-throated Flycatcher was discovered on Plum Island on November 12, and perhaps the same bird was found in Salisbury three days later. Ash-throated Flycatchers have been reported 17 times in the last ten years. Western Kingbirds were noted in three locations, with birds in Gloucester and Nantucket delighting many birders by staying for over a month. A Townsend's Solitaire was found at Halibut Point State Park in Rockport on November 23 and continued into the New Year. Despite the long stay, this bird was elusive and difficult to find. Although it was seen every day, most birders had to try multiple times to find the bird.

Other noteworthy passerine vagrants included Sedge Wrens from Nantucket and Cuttyhunk and Western Tanagers from Plymouth, Gloucester and Sandwich. The Sandwich tanager frequented a feeder belonging to birders, who welcomed others, allowing many to enjoy the bird at close range. Among the 25 species of warblers seen during the period was a Black-throated Gray Warbler that was present for 15 days along the Shining Sea Bikeway in Falmouth and a Townsend's Warbler in Watertown.

This year's annual winter finch distribution report by Ron Pittaway of Ontario Field Ornithologists is not encouraging for Massachusetts; an abundant crop of boreal spruce cones and excellent birch and alder seed crops will keep winter finches up north this winter. A handful of Red Crossbills were noted from central and western areas of the state. A single report of 10 Evening Grosbeaks made a one-day stop at a Northfield feeder, and a small number of Pine Siskins, mostly single individuals, were also reported.

R. Stymeist


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

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