December 2020

Vol. 48, No. 6

Bird Sightings: July–August 2020

Neil Hayward and Robert H. Stymeist

It was a hot July and August in our region. The mercury hit 90 degrees or higher in Boston on seven days in July and six days in August. Since May of this year, many areas of the state have been in severe drought. During that period, the rainfall in Boston was 7.2 inches less than the average, making it the tenth-driest period since 1872.


Tropical Storm Isaias arrived in Massachusetts on August 4, tracking through our state about 160 miles west of Boston. Areas in central Massachusetts and the Berkshires experienced more rain and stronger winds than Cape Cod and Cape Ann. For birders, the storm brought a number of unusual seabirds to inland lakes, especially Pontoosuc and Onota lakes in the Pittsfield area and at the Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs.

R. Stymeist

A Note on Taxonomy

Bird Observer follows the taxonomy published by the American Ornithological Society (AOS). The AOS was previously known as the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) before its merger with the Cooper Ornithological Society in October 2016. Each summer the AOS’s Committee on Classification and Nomenclature of North and Middle American Birds (NACC) publishes an annual supplement to its bird checklist. Highlights from this year’s supplement (the 61st) include the split of Mexican Duck from Mallard, and the lumping of Northwestern and American crows. Neither of these decisions affects the Massachusetts state list, although deeper insight into phylogenetic relationships—often through genetic analysis—has resulted in some reshuffling of species within families, thus changing the linear order of those species in the checklist.


Some of our common wintering ducks are entirely absent from the state during the summer. This period, a number of those species remained, some even staying to breed. Northern Shovelers were found in July for only the third time this century. The 24 birds reported from Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) on July 25 beat the previous July high of just three birds in 2018. The flock was up to 45 birds in August, eclipsing the previous year’s count of 16. The high numbers included several successful broods. Chestnut Hill Reservoir scored the first Suffolk County records for Ring-necked Duck for both July and August. The species was also recorded at Wachusett Reservoir, the first August record for Worcester County since 1999. Breeding was confirmed at Royalston. This is the location where Ring-necked Ducks bred in 2018, the first record of breeding in the state since 1979. Lesser Scaup is rare in summer, and a male found at Wachusett Reservoir is the first Worcester County record (per of the species for July and August. A male Harlequin Duck at Eastham through most of the period is the first summer record for the state since 2006.

Pied-billed Grebes were reported from a record 11 counties (last summer the record was 10), with evidence of successful breeding at Monomoy NWR, Rock Meadow Pond in Ayer, and Lake Wallace in Belchertown. The latter two appear to be new breeding locations for this species. Pied-billed Grebe is listed as endangered under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA).

There were two records of White-winged Dove this period, both from islands. The July bird is the third eBird record for Tuckernuck Island (the previous two were both in June), and the August record was a first for Cuttyhunk Island. These are the first records for the state since a pair of doves at Fenway Gardens, Boston, in the winter of 2017–2018. Chuck-will’s-widows were reported from Falmouth through July 10, with two audio-recorded on July 6. With such a cryptic species, it is difficult to confirm breeding, although with birds reported at this location annually since 2013, there seems a reasonable chance of active nesting.

Monomoy NWR hosted up to 11 Common Gallinules this summer, which is the highest eBird summer count for the state since 15 birds at Great Meadows in August 1978. The number included at least seven chicks and was the only location at which breeding was confirmed this year. Sandhill Cranes raised single chicks at Worthington and Burrage Pond Wildlife Management Area (WMA). A pair at Hardwick had two young in May that were subsequently lost in June; it was the first breeding attempt for Worcester County. Typically, young cranes will remain with their parents for 9–10 months. They learn to fly at 65–75 days old.

The shorebird highlight was a Pacific Golden-Plover on Esther Island off Nantucket on August 26. This is the fourth record for the state with previous records from Plum Island on April 21–May 5, 2002, Plymouth Beach on July 20, 2013, and Monomoy NWR on July 25–August 2, 2019. Pacific Golden-Plovers breed in western Alaska and the Russian Far East and are very rare vagrants in the east. The first Massachusetts record in 2002 was only the third for the East Coast. This year’s bird may be the same individual spotted in central Pennsylvania on July 16 and at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on July 18–20. In contrast to the one-day-one-observer plover, a breeding-plumaged Curlew Sandpiper at Third Cliff, Scituate, from August 2–6 was much more widely appreciated. This is the only fall record for the East Coast this year. This Eurasian shorebird has been recorded in 14 years this century, with the bulk appearing in May and August. It is the first record for Plymouth County since a bird at Duxbury Beach in May 2009. Other rare shorebirds included male Ruffs, reported from Fairhaven and Monomoy NWR at the start and end of July, respectively, and American Avocets at Plum Island—presumably separate birds in mid-July and mid-August—and Chatham and Yarmouth at the end of August. A count of 24 Whimbrels at Scituate on August 2 is a new eBird high count for Plymouth County, and a single bird at Wachusett Reservoir on August 4 is the first Worcester County record for a decade. Marbled Godwits were reported from four counties, including a bird at Squantum on August 15, which represents the first Norfolk County record since 1996.

Hurricane Isaias deposited a number of pelagic goodies over mainland Massachusetts on August 4. The star species was Sooty Tern, of which 34 birds were recorded in 10 locations. The highest concentration—18 birds—was seen and photographed at Onota Lake in Pittsfield. However, it was Wachusett Reservoir that provided many birders with their state tick, with up to two birds lingering for 10 days. Birds at Longmeadow and Cuttyhunk Island were firsts for Hampden and Dukes counties, respectively. Sooty Terns were reported all along the path of Isaias, from Florida north to inland Rockingham County, New Hampshire, and Matinicus Rock, Maine. Sooty Terns are colonial breeders in the Caribbean and, because of their pelagic abundance and reluctance to land on water, are prone to hurricane-related vagrancy. The largest number recorded in Massachusetts was in September 1979 following Hurricane David, when at least 85 Sooty Terns were recorded (Veit and Petersen, 1993).

Other storm-blown species included a jaeger flying over Quabbin Reservoir and Laughing Gulls—exceptionally rare inland—in Hampden, Hampshire, and Worcester counties. Red-necked Phalaropes appeared at Wachusett Reservoir, Scituate, Manomet, Pittsfield, Fresh Pond in Cambridge, and Cuttyhunk Island. An Atlantic Puffin that flew past Andrews Point in Rockport may also have been storm related.

A South Polar Skua was photographed harassing gulls at Race Point on July 17. South Polar Skuas are annual in the state, typically appearing between July to September. A Long-tailed Jaeger at Gooseberry Neck on July 7 is the first record for Bristol County. Although annual, Sabine’s Gull is a difficult species to see in Massachusetts because they often do not linger long. This year, a first summer bird spent almost the entire period at Race Point, where it was briefly joined by a juvenile at the end of August. The vast majority of state records come from Cape Cod. Adult Franklin’s Gulls were reported from Eastham, Rockport (after the hurricane), and West Barnstable. Four Roseate Terns appeared at the Point of Pines, Revere, on August 27. The species is surprisingly rare for Suffolk County, with only two prior eBird records (1921 and 1999). Two days later, on August 29, at least 79 birds were seen in Quincy Bay, only the third year in which the species has been recorded in Norfolk County, and by far the largest flock seen there. An impressive 1,825 Roseate Terns flew by Race Point that day, with juveniles representing 10–15 percent of birds.

A breeding-plumaged Pacific Loon was photographed at Race Point on August 22. A week later, another bird, this one in nonbreeding plumage, was reported. These birds represent the first August records for the state, which means Pacific Loons have now been found in Massachusetts in every month of the year.

Brown Boobies have become regular, albeit rare, visitors to the state. This period, there were three reports from Cape Cod, together with four reports from pelagic vessels. Brown Pelicans have experienced a similar upward trend, and this period a single bird was reported from Wellfleet on July 9.

This appears to have been a good year for Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. A bird at Lanesborough on August 7 is the first August record for Berkshire County, and only the fourth eBird record for the county. Up to 15 birds were at Plum Island, which represents the second-highest count for Essex County. New county highs were 14 birds at Tuckernuck Island (Nantucket County) and 11 birds in Marshfield (Plymouth County). And Middlesex County scored its first Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in a decade.

N. Hayward


The annual fall hawk migration season began at Wachusett Mountain on August 15, nearly a month before the bulk arrival of Broad-winged Hawks. From August 20 to the end of the month, 76 Broad-winged Hawks were tallied. During the last four days of August, an impressive 11 Bald Eagles passed over the summit. A total of five Northern Goshawks were reported statewide during the month of August. The raptor highlight of the period was the discovery of a Crested Caracara in Gloucester on August 12. The same bird was refound on August 16–17 in the vicinity of Woodsom Farm, Amesbury. Only three previous reports of this species have been recorded for the state, at Cumberland Farms in Middleborough from January 3–9, 1999, West Tisbury on May 14, 2007, and Chatham on April 5, 2015. It is possible that the Chatham bird may have been the same bird reported three months later in Westport on July 5, 2015.

Many local bird clubs conduct annual Breeding Bird Surveys. This year’s pandemic resulted in many surveys and trips being canceled. Glenn d’Entremont, however, ran his usual South Shore Bird Club trip to Gate 10 alone—with no other participants—at the Quabbin Reservoir with much success. Some of the highlights included 83 Red-eyed Vireos, 51 Veeries (up from 32 in the previous year), and 93 Ovenbirds (up from 53 in the previous year). Mark Lynch and Sheila Carroll surveyed the Ware River Important Bird Area on July 9 and counted 29 Veeries, 33 Hermit Thrushes, and 56 Ovenbirds. Reports of possible breeding Olive-sided Flycatchers were noted in July from Sheffield and from the Moran WMA in Windsor.

The fall songbird migration gets underway in August. One of the highlights is the gathering of thousands of Tree Swallows on Plum Island. This year over 15,000 swallows were estimated. Some of the last migrants to arrive here in the spring are the first to return south in the fall. Olive-sided and Yellow-bellied flycatchers fall into that category. A total of 29 warbler species were noted during the period, highlighted by Golden-winged Warblers from Belmont and Harwich. In mid-August, there was a mass movement of Red-breasted Nuthatches reported throughout the state. Likewise, there were good numbers of Red Crossbills, which were noted from over 20 different locations during the period. These reports may be indicative of a poor cone crop in the northern forests, suggesting that higher numbers of irruptive species may be seen in the coming fall and winter months. The most unusual songbird reported this period was a Tyrannus kingbird—likely a Tropical or Couch’s kingbird—along the Charles River in Watertown. These two species are notoriously difficult to separate without vocalization. It is interesting to note that during the same period last year, a Tropical Kingbird was present at Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield. Unfortunately, this year’s bird at Watertown was never heard, prohibiting conclusive identification.

R. Stymeist

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