October 2020

Vol. 48, No. 5

Bird Sightings: May-June 2020

Neil Hayward and Robert H. Stymeist

May began as a brief warm spell, with temperatures rising to 78 degrees on May 3. Strong southwest winds brought a surge of new migrants to our area. By May 6, the Boston area experienced unusually cold weather, with parts of western Massachusetts receiving measurable amounts of snow. On May 10 (Mother's Day), Boston tied the record low temperature of 34 degrees set on that date in 1902. The high temperature for the month was 83 degrees on May 27, and the average temperature in Boston was 65 degrees, just one degree below the historical average for May. Precipitation for the month totaled 2.21 inches, 1.28 inches below the normal for Boston.


June was warm, with an average temperature in Boston of 77.6 degrees, 1.6 degrees above normal. For the most part, the month was dry with Boston recording 2.66 inches of rain for the month, more than an inch below the historical average. From June 11–27, only 0.01 inch of rain was recorded. From June 28–30, strong to severe thunderstorms were noted in southeastern Massachusetts, where as much as 5.75 inches of rain was recorded in Norwood and 2.73 inches in Milton. The same storm produced only 1.56 inches of rain in Boston.

R. Stymeist

Note: Massachusetts was placed under a stay-at-home advisory on March 24 in an effort to contain the spread of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. This was replaced in mid-May with a safer-at-home advisory as part of a planned reopening of certain businesses and communal spaces. The advisory, together with a fear of infection, particularly among older birders, and the closure of some birding locations, such as Mount Auburn Cemetery (closed to all but graveside visitors until June 1) and Plum Island (closed to vehicles until June 4), probably resulted in fewer reports and less coverage than in a "normal" year.


A Greater White-fronted Goose was socially-distancing on Martha's Vineyard until May 9, before (presumably) flying north to breed. The orange bill suggests that this bird was heading back to Greenland where the flavirostris subspecies breed and from where the majority of the state's Greater White-fronts are believed to hail. In contrast, the pink-billed race (gambelli), that breeds from central Alaska east to Hudson Bay, is a much rarer visitor to the state.

Tardiness was the theme of duck news this period. A single Ring-necked Duck continued at Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Boston through June, constituting the only June record of this species for Suffolk County. The high of 32 there in May beat the previous Suffolk high count for May of just two birds. The species is rarer on the Outer Cape, where a male present from May 18–21 is only the second May record for Provincetown after a bird in 2009. A male Eurasian Wigeon lingered at West Newbury until May 1. It is the first May record for Essex County since 2014.

After a promising increase in numbers in recent years, this year's high count of just 30 Common Nighthawks on May 26 at Bolton Flats was disappointing. Chuck-will's-widows were calling from their recent haunts at the east end of Nantucket and in North Falmouth.

Pied-billed Grebe is a very rare breeder in Massachusetts; it is listed as an endangered species by the state's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP). Last year, a pair bred near Lenox. This year, breeding was confirmed at Belchertown, with up to five young reported during the period. Common Gallinule, also listed by the NHESP (as Special Concern) was reported from six locations, although none indicated any attempt at breeding. Massachusetts hosted two different Purple Gallinules in May in Plymouth and in Yarmouth. The species breeds in Florida, is highly migratory and prone to extreme vagrancy. The only other location to host vagrant Purple Gallinules this period was Long Island, New York, while New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the Canadian Maritimes reported singles in April.

Figure. 1 June is the best month to see Franklin's Gull in Massachusetts. The chart shows the number of years in which Franklin's Gull has been recorded in Massachusetts for the period 2000–2019. Data from

Sandhill Cranes have been recorded in every county in Massachusetts this year except for Bristol County. Breeding was confirmed at two locations: Worthington (for the fifth year in a row) and Burrage Pond (for the fourth year). An injured crane was rescued by Wild Care Cape Cod from South Chatham on May 18. The bird was underweight and had a wound on its neck, which required surgery. After a successful recovery, the crane was released near Barnstable Harbor, from where it was regularly seen through the end of the month.

Rare shorebirds for the period included an American Avocet at Plum Island on June 16, and Wilson's Plovers at Eastham on May 6–7 and Plum Island on June 19. The latter are the first spring records for Wilson's Plover since a bird in May 2014, which was also found at Plum Island. Long-billed Dowitchers are rare spring migrants to the state. An adult bird in breeding plumage, photographed at Quincy on May 1, is only the fifth period record this century. American Golden-Plovers are much less common in the spring than in the fall. Two records this period at Provincetown and Barnstable on May 2 and May 14, respectively, are about normal, though later than the average spring arrival date of April 17. Hudsonian Godwits are typically detected as fall migrants from as early as the first week of July. This year, a bird seen at Plum Island on June 23 was the earliest record this century, except for a May and early June record in 2016. It was a slow spring for Red Knot; the high count of three birds at Monomoy NWR on June 29 is the lowest high for June since 1999. (The highest, also at Monomoy, was 280 on June 28, 2012.) Berkshire County added its fifth record of Wilson's Phalarope, when two females were discovered at Ashley Falls, Sheffield on May 16 (see Schopp 2020 for a detailed report).

Covid-19 restrictions may have benefited breeding shorebirds, especially Piping Plovers. Norfolk County reported its first breeding record. This was the first year that breeding was documented—on two different beaches. A nesting pair produced young at Wollaston Beach, Quincy, and a pair were sitting on eggs at Cohasset. Prior to this year, the only records of the species in Norfolk County were in 2012 and 2019.

A count of 13 American Woodcock on Cuttyhunk Island on May 16 is a new high for Dukes County, eclipsing the previous high of seven birds on Martha's Vineyard.

An Atlantic Puffin was photographed at Race Point on June 14. Outside of the winter months of November–February, June is actually the month you are most likely to find one. Interestingly, although there are June records from Race Point in 2007, 2015, 2017, and 2020, there are no historical puffin sightings from Provincetown in either May or July.

The rarest gull of the period was a stunning adult Franklin's Gull photographed on the beach at Race Point on June 21. This is the seventh year this century in which this western species has been recorded in Massachusetts, and June is by far the most likely month in which to encounter one—see Figure 1. (The next is November, with four records this century.) A report of seven Little Gulls at Provincetown on May 16 is about average. An adult and immature Lesser Black-backed Gull were reported from Pittsfield on May 1. This species has been recorded in every county in Massachusetts, with Berkshire County being the last; the first eBird record for the county was only in 2015.

A Sandwich Tern that was present at Race Point Beach, May 25–27, was the first record for the state since a bird photographed on Nantucket in July 2018. Sandwich Tern is reported every three out of four years, with the bulk of the records coming from Cape Cod. This may be a good year for Black Skimmers. Counts of 22 (May) and 32 (June) are new monthly high counts for the state.

Both pelican species made their summer debuts in June. The four Brown Pelicans that flew over the Cuttyhunk to New Bedford ferry on June 5 represent a new state high count. An American White Pelican discovered on June 10 was similarly observed from a boat—this time a kayak on Wickett Pond in Wendell. It is only the second record for Franklin County after a bird found in Shelburne on January 9, 2008.

The presence and absence of Cattle Egrets has been noteworthy this year. This species has been recorded in the state every spring this century (except 2015) with an average arrival date of April 14. The latest arrival had been May 3, until this year when a bird finally put in an appearance at Dartmouth on May 19. Making up for seasonal tardiness, an appearance of a single bird at Cuttyhunk Island at the start of June added a new species to the island list. This has also been the first year this century that the species has (so far) not been recorded in Essex County—a traditional hotspot for the bird. Another Essex County regular was, however, present; up to two White-faced Ibises were in the Ipswich area for the first half of May.

N. Hayward


For the first three weeks of May, hawkwatchers at Lot 1 on Plum Island continued to monitor the spring migration of raptors. On May 2, favorable winds from the northwest pushed migrants close to shore in what was to be the last major migratory push. Totals included 104 American Kestrels, 63 Merlins, and 112 Sharp-shinned Hawks. Noteworthy reports during the period included Swallow-tailed Kites from West Harwich and from Cuttyhunk Island. Mississippi Kites were photographed from Lake Quinsigamond in Shrewsbury and from South Hadley. The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) reported encouraging news on the Peregrine Falcon population; a total of 46 territorial pairs were documented nesting in the state. As of July 1, a team of biologists had successfully banded more than 40 chicks.

From mid-April, north winds and frequent rains stalled spring migration, frustrating birders all over the Northeast. On the night of May 2, radar across the eastern United States lit up with migrating birds. The winds had shifted from north to west-southwest, which together with light rain produced a major fallout on the morning of Sunday, May 3. Rick Heil and Sean Williams were separately on Plum Island and witnessed a significant movement during the first three hours of daylight. High counts included 93 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, 128 White-throated Sparrows, 66 Palm Warblers, and more than 450 Yellow-rumped Warblers. Exceptionally early reports for the date included Eastern Kingbird, White-eyed Vireo, and Orchard Oriole.

The favorable weather did not last long. A cold front brought snow to areas on May 6, and on Mother's Day, May 10, the temperature in Boston at dawn was 34 degrees. Migration was stalled again, delaying birds that otherwise were expected in good numbers during the first two weeks of May. On the night of May 15, warm temperatures and southwest winds finally produced a large movement. Throughout the night, birds were moving northeast along coastal New England. Overnight conditions consisted of heavy rain and strong southwest winds. Astute birders realized that the storms started too early for migrants to make it north of Boston. Cape Cod, with a later arrival of the storm front, was better placed for a fallout. On the morning of May 16, Sean Williams was at Race Point while Liam Waters and others were at High Head in North Truro. Some high counts from Race Point included 210 Eastern Kingbirds, 45 Blue-headed Vireos, 66 Lincoln's Sparrows, and 58 White-crowned Sparrows. Among the warblers noted were 420 Black-and-white, 60 Nashville, 181 Cape May, 114 Bay-breasted, and 770 Yellow-rumped warblers, as well as 890 Northern Parulas, and 35 Northern Waterthrushes. A full report of Sean's experience can be found at <>. Significant movement also occurred that morning on Plum Island, Cape Ann, and in the Boston area. On Plum Island, high counts included 72 American Redstarts, 97 Northern Parulas, 47 Black-and-white, and 177 Yellow-rumped warblers. At Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester, the early morning fallout netted 41 Northern Parulas and nearly 800 Yellow-rumped Warblers, while in Medford, 38 Black-and-white Warblers and 57 Northern Parulas were counted at the Brooks Estate.

Another migrant fallout occurred on Plum Island after a foggy morning on May 26. Three Olive-sided, five Yellow-bellied, and seven Alder flycatchers were tallied. High counts of warblers included 90 American Redstarts, 32 Black-and-white, 44 Magnolia, 12 Canada, and 8 Wilson's warblers.

The most unusual bird found during the period was a Western Kingbird photographed at High Ridge Wildlife Management Area in Gardner on June 7. This is only the fourth June record for the state, with the others coming from Chatham on June 30, 1986 (Veit and Petersen, 1993), Plum Island on June 15, 2005, and Martha's Vineyard on June 4, 2010. Thirty-four warbler species were reported during the period including two Golden-winged Warblers photographed at High Head in Truro and Cuttyhunk Island. Prothonotary Warblers were noted from seven locations, compared with just four reports in 2018 and 2019. Other highlights included sightings of eight adult Red-headed Woodpeckers, seven Clay-colored Sparrows, with Summer Tanagers reported from 13 different locations. Yellow-headed Blackbirds were photographed from Plum Island and Race Point in Provincetown.

With the Covid-19 lockdown, birders were incentivized to visit and discover new areas closer to home. Bob Zajda of Palmer chose to do a "Big Spring" in West Warren, 18 minutes from his home. The area contains White's Swamp and the Quaboag River runs through the center of town. Bob birded almost every day in May and amassed a list of over 100 species. On May 16, the same day birders on Cape Cod, Cape Ann and Plum Island witnessed a major fallout, Bob and Joe Bourget tallied 102 species in West Warren. Some of Bob's more significant sightings during May were American Bittern, Northern Goshawk, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Prothonotary, Cerulean, Worm-eating and Kentucky warblers.

"Winter" finches, especially crossbills, are nomadic and, despite their name, can occur at any time of the year. During this period, Red Crossbills were noted from over 10 locations with as many as 35 noted from Mount Greylock. A few Evening Grosbeaks were seen mostly in northern Worcester County and the Berkshires. Unusually late reports included a Lapland Longspur on May 16 and a Snow Bunting on May 19 (both from Provincetown), an American Tree Sparrow in Pittsfield on May 2, and a Dark-eyed Junco in Newton on June 28.

R. Stymeist


  • Schopp, K. 2020. Wilson's Phalarope: Second Record for Ashley Falls and Fifth Record for Berkshire County, Massachusetts, Bird Observer 48 (4):251–252.
  • Veit, R. R., and W. R. Petersen. 1993. Birds of Massachusetts. Lincoln, Mass. Massachusetts Audubon Society..

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