August 2020

Vol. 48, No. 4

Bird Sightings: March-April 2020

Neil Hayward and Robert H. Stymeist

The unusually mild and snow-free conditions of January and February continued into March. The average temperature in March was 42.1 degrees, 4.1 degrees warmer than the average for the month. Boston reached a high of 72 degrees on March 9, the second hottest on record, behind the 77 degrees set in March 2016. Precipitation totaled 3.6 inches, about a half-inch below average. The highest single day rainfall for the month was 1.38 inches on March 23. Only a trace of snow was recorded in Boston compared to the 7.8 inches that fell in March the previous year.


April was unusually cold and damp; it was the nineteenth coldest April since records began in 1872. The high for the month was 62 degrees on April 6–7, while the average temperature for the month was 44.5 degrees, 3.5 degrees below normal. Rainfall totaled 4.33 inches, almost an inch above the average for April. There were 18 consecutive days where at least a trace of rain was recorded in Boston. On April 18, 0.7 inch of snow fell.

R. Stymeist


Wild goose chasers were busy this period, with reports of all eight species of goose on the state list. A single Pink-footed Goose joined the continuing and long-staying pair of Barnacle Geese in the Rochester area. Cackling Geese were in short supply, with only single sightings in Essex and Worcester counties, compared to records in eight counties during the same period the previous year. A Ross's Goose, the first since November last year, made its 2020 debut in Newbury in mid-March.

Pittsfield, in Western Massachusetts, has had its share of rare waterfowl in the past, including a record of 10 King Eiders on May 5, 1993. This year, the town added two Eurasian ducks—Eurasian Wigeon and the Eurasian form of Green-winged Teal—both apparently second records for Berkshire County. Closer to the coast, this winter was good for Ring-necked Ducks, with Fresh Pond in Cambridge and the Chestnut Hill Reservoir scoring a high count for the period of 82 birds on March 3 and April 3, respectively. The big Tufted Duck news of the period was not the continuing drake on Nantucket—a regular since 2013—but a hybrid; a rare Tufted Duck x scaup, found in Sharon on April 4, was the first record away from Cape Cod. This taxon is nationally rare with a North American distribution predictably paralleling that of its parent Tufted Duck, i.e., in the Northeast and hugging the West Coast. For only a handful of those records has the scaup parent been identified to species. Also, in hybrid news, the Bufflehead x Common Goldeneye continued at Rock Harbor Marsh, Orleans. First discovered in April 2017, this bird is the only record of this taxon for the state.

In most years, Eastern Whip-poor-wills are the first of the goatsuckers to arrive—usually in the second half of April. This year's single April record from Quabbin Park on April 29 is the latest arrival since 2007 and it was beaten by a Common Nighthawk. A report of the latter in Hadley on April 24 would constitute the earliest arrival date for the state this century. Though most nighthawks arrive toward the end of May and early June, there are historical records from April and even March. Veit and Petersen (1993) report sightings as early as March 14 in 1925 and 1966.

American Oystercatcher 3/8 3/15 +7
Piping Plover 3/13 2/23 -19
Lesser Yellowlegs 3/25 3/11 -14
Pectoral Sandpiper 3/25 3/11 -14
Solitary Sandpiper 4/14 4/16 +2
Upland Sandpiper 4/14 4/21 +7
Willet 4/15 4/11 -4
Spotted Sandpiper 4/17 4/18 +1
Least Sandpiper 4/17 4/26 +9
Short-billed Dowitcher 4/20 4/27 +7
Semipalmated Plover 4/27 4/11 -16
Whimbrel 5/1 4/11 -20

Table 1. Shorebird arrival dates in Massachusetts in 2020 compared to historical average (calculated for the period 2000–2019). Data from

Bolton Flats Wildlife Management Area, which straddles Lancaster and Harvard, produced a period record high of 18 Virginia Rails on April 25. Observer Steve Arena, who was positioned there from 4:00 am, noted of the rails that, "about half of them [are] advertising males. No to light wind coupled with the stunted spring vegetation made detection relatively easy." The six Soras that Steve also recorded that day are the highest period count for the state since 1965. A Common Gallinule spotted on Nantucket on March 24 represents the only eBird record in Massachusetts for March.

Sandhill Cranes continue their expansion into our state, after the first breeding record in New Marlborough in 2007. The species has been recorded each spring and summer at Burrage Pond WMA since 2014, with breeding confirmed in 2016, 2017, and 2019. At least two birds were present this year from March 13, with a high count of 11 on April 17 setting a new period high count for the state.

Returning shorebirds were across the board in their arrivals this year (see Table 1). Lesser Yellowlegs and Pectoral Sandpiper appeared on March 11, a full two weeks ahead of schedule. A month later, April 11, brought more early birds: Willet (4 days early), Semipalmated Plover (16 days early) and a Whimbrel. The latter, which was found in Falmouth, was almost three weeks early, but still six days short of the earliest state record on Plum Island, April 5, 1974 (Veit and Petersen, 1993). Late arrivals included Upland Sandpiper (April 21), Least Sandpiper (April 26), and Short-billed Dowitcher (April 27)—all at least a week later than average.

The rarest shorebird species of the period was Ruff. A probable female was on Nantucket on April 4, the fifth record for the island and third earliest for the state. The earliest record is March 31 of 1999 (Ipswich) and 2019 (Scotland Road, Newbury). A young male Ruff was later found in Barnstable on April 25. Offshore, 30 Red Phalaropes passed First Encounter Beach on April 4, eclipsing the previous April high this century of just three birds, but still some way from the eye-popping 2,000 seen at the Nantucket Lightship on April 30, 1954 (Veit and Petersen, 1993).

The same sea watch that found the Red Phalaropes at First Encounter Beach also produced a Great Skua. It is the first sighting for the state since November 2015 and the only April eBird record for North America except for North Carolina (1993 and 2013) and Bermuda (2015).

The pale, arctic breeding mandtii subspecies of Black Guillemot, first discovered at MacMillan Wharf in Provincetown on December 16, 2019, continued until March 19. Over two weeks later, possibly a second bird was photographed off Race Point. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration survey aboard the R/V Auk on March 3 set a new March record for Common Murres with 102, beating the previous high of 70 set in 2004. The following month, Race Point set a new high for April with 261 Common Murres, which beat the previous high of 57 in 2013.

A Mew Gull was photographed on Nantucket on March 28. Since the mid-1990s Mew Gull has been almost annual to the state, with the majority of records coming from Essex County. This year's Nantucket bird is only the fourth record for the island after the first in 2013. It was tentatively identified to the Asian subspecies kamtschatschensis based on the primary wing pattern and the dark mantle.

An immature Yellow-billed Loon was a one-day wonder at Race Point on April 19. This is the second record for the state, after the long-staying immature seen February 27–April 17, 2016. The only other records in the United States this year have been inland records in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Colorado, as well as the more predictable West Coast records in California and Washington State. Pacific Loons were noted from Rockport and Race Point, with a bird at the latter on April 26 having molted into its attractive alternate (breeding) plumage.

The first Brown Pelican of the year was captured on video flying back and forth along the beach off Wellfleet. It is the only April record for the state and with the exception of three January records (1998, 2000, and 2015) it is the earliest record for the year.

Herons were mostly early in their arrival dates this year, including Least Bittern (April 23, 12 days earlier than average), Tricolored Heron (April 1, 14 days early), and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (April 20, 13 days early). Little Blue Herons bucked the trend; they were almost two weeks late, with the first being found on April 12. At least two White-faced Ibises returned to the Ipswich area in Essex County. The first bird was found on April 11 in West Newbury. The earliest record for the state is April 6, 2015.

N. Hayward


A Swallow-tailed Kite was photographed in Bridgewater on March 11 and possibly the same individual was seen nearby on March 14. March reports of this species are rare in the state. The most recent March reports are from 2014, with birds recorded in Orleans and Harwich (March 12), Essex (March 15), and Nantucket (March 17). Another Swallow-tailed Kite was noted on April 11 from Truro, an area of the outer Cape that is one of the more reliable locations to see this species from mid-April through early June.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the traditional hawkwatch at Lot 1 on Plum Island was staffed with only a few volunteers; for the month of April, the hawkwatch logged a total of 68 hours compared with 158 hours in 2019. According to Paul Roberts, founder of the Eastern Massachusetts Hawk Watch, the 2020 season was about average. However, numbers of Sharp-shinned Hawks, American Kestrels, and Merlins were higher than the ten-year rolling average. Broad-winged Hawk migration was well under way by mid-April, with 13 individuals noted in Amherst on April 29. Wintering Rough-legged Hawks continued on Plum Island until March 12, and as many as three Snowy Owls were present on the refuge as late as March 28. The last reported Snowy Owl for the state was from Race Point in Provincetown on April 6.

March and April signal the start of migration. This year's migration was unlike any other that we have witnessed. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the spread of Covid-19 a pandemic. By the end of the month many of our favorite birding areas were closed. All the local bird clubs cancelled their scheduled trips and meetings and most Mass Audubon sanctuaries were closed to visitors. On March 30, Mount Auburn Cemetery closed its gates to the public and to birders, with visiting hours restricted to 4–6 pm for those visiting the graves of loved ones. Parker River National Wildlife Refuge closed its gates to vehicles on April 17, but still allowed birders and others to enter on foot or by bicycle. We all learned what it meant to shelter in place and how to keep our social distance. Luckily, social distancing is generally not a problem for birding and staying close to home gave birders a reason to explore new areas. We all discovered that birding can be rewarding wherever you are.

The mild and relatively storm-free weather that we enjoyed at the start of the year continued into March. These mild conditions may help explain some unusual numbers of over-wintering birds that would otherwise have perished. Examples include many Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Gray Catbirds, Chipping Sparrows, Eastern Towhees, and Orange-crowned Warblers. There were also reports of birds that do not typically overwinter in our state, including a Black-throated Blue Warbler found at Mount Auburn in late March, a Northern Parula in Orleans, and a MacGillivray's Warbler at Manomet that likely moved on to breed. Tree Swallows and Eastern Phoebes arrived early in March and continued to build up in numbers by the start of April. The woods in late March were alive with the song of Winter Wrens and Brown Creepers. They were soon joined by Blue-headed Vireos, Pine Warblers, and—in their regular spots—Louisiana Waterthrushes.

With the closure of many of the traditional locations where birders gather to witness and monitor the progression of migration, it was difficult to pinpoint the best days. The first significant movement seems to have occurred on April 19–20. Rick Heil had an excellent fallout of early migrants on Plum Island during the early morning of April 20. Among the 76 species Rick reported, high counts included 44 Northern Flickers, 12 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, 40 Hermit Thrushes, 51 Yellow-rumped Warblers, and 67 Savannah Sparrows. Cool weather and significant rain prevailed from April 24 through April 27, which stalled migration.

Among the highlights for the period included the continuing and cooperative Red-headed Woodpeckers at Rock Meadow Pond, Ayer, and at Bachelor Brook in South Hadley. The Townsend's Solitaire, which was first discovered on November 10, 2019, at Halibut Point in Rockport, was last seen on March 2. Noteworthy sparrow reports during the period were three Grasshopper Sparrows, a Lark Sparrow at Kingston, two reports of Clay-colored Sparrow, and a very obliging Ipswich Sparrow that spent seven days at Millennium Park in West Roxbury. A total of 19 species of warbler were noted during the period. Outstanding reports included the MacGillivray's Warbler seen and audio-recorded at Manomet, a Hooded Warbler and a Prothonotary Warbler in Provincetown, and another Hooded Warbler in Hingham. The Western Tanager first noted from Sandwich on the Buzzards Bay Christmas Bird Count on December 14 was last seen on March 3. Other Western Tanagers were noted from Nantucket and Amherst. Rounding out the rarities were reports of Summer Tanagers from Sandwich and Mashpee and two different Painted Buntings in Orleans.

R. Stymeist


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

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