April 2021

Vol. 49, No. 2

Bird Sightings: November–December 2020

Neil Hayward and Robert H. Stymeist

The temperature for the first 17 days of November was above average. For six days, during a stretch from November 5 to 12, the temperature in Boston was 70 degrees or higher. Worcester tied a record for five consecutive days of 70 degrees or higher. The high temperature in Boston for the month was 76 degrees on November 10. There were 11 rainy days in November, with precipitation in Boston totaling 3.9 inches—the third highest monthly rainfall for 2020. Heavy rain and damaging winds swept through the state on the last day of the month, with wind speeds in eastern Massachusetts exceeding 50 mph and with much stronger gusts in southeastern Massachusetts. The Blue Hill weather observatory in Canton reported a gust of 80 mph.


December began with a temperature of 63 degrees in Boston, the high for the month. Winter arrived on Saturday, December 5; a nor’easter brought strong winds and as much as a foot of wet snow to central Massachusetts and several inches of rain to Cape Cod. Chilmark, on Martha’s Vineyard, reported 3.68 inches of rain, while in Boston the rain changed over to snow in late afternoon. Boston recorded its first frost on December 6 when the temperature dipped below 32 degrees. A major snowstorm arrived on December 16–17, just days before the first weekend of Christmas Bird Counts. The storm dumped as much as 10–19 inches of snow on many communities. Boston recorded 13.1 inches of snow, with higher accumulations in western Massachusetts; Ashfield logged 18.5 inches. On Cape Cod and the Islands the snow changed over to rain, leaving just five inches of snow in Harwich and a little over two inches on Vineyard Haven. A late surge of mild temperatures culminated on December 25 with a high of 60 degrees, tying the record for the third warmest Christmas Day in Boston.

R. Stymeist


There are eight species of geese on the Massachusetts state list and all eight were reported this period. The first record of Ross’s Goose for the state was a pair in Sunderland in March 1997. The species has been undergoing a range expansion as well as an increase in population. Twenty-three years later, in December 2020, a bird in Lakeville, Bristol County, completed the county set: this species has now been recorded in each of the state’s 14 counties. Pink-footed Geese were reported from Outer Cape Cod and Newburyport. This species was first added to the state list in 1999 by a sighting in Dennis and is still unrecorded on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Barnacle Geese were reported in three counties. A new high count for Snow Geese was set on the afternoon of December 15, when one observer logged 7,215 geese flying south along the Housatonic Valley. Flocks numbered from 40 to 1,200 and included four blue morphs. Another goose high was set at Oak Bluffs on December 12 when 212 Brant eclipsed the previous Dukes County high of 160 birds recorded in January 2019. Tundra Swans were well represented with birds in three counties. The flock of 12 in Westport on November 28 is only the fifth record of a double-digit flock this century.

The duck highlight of the period was the spectacular raft of scoters off Revere Beach. A careful count on November 8 recorded 13,500 Black Scoters—which smashed the previous Suffolk County high of 5,000 set in January 2019—as well as 2,400 White-winged Scoters and 1,200 Surf Scoters. A count of 175 Green-winged Teals on Martha’s Vineyard on November 22 ties the high count for the county set in 1994. Nantucket hosted record numbers of Canvasbacks and Redheads; the 185 Canvasbacks on November 6 is the highest period count for the state this century, and a flock of 56 Redheads at the end of the period is the highest count of the species this century, beating the previous high of 44 on Nantucket the previous year.

An Eared Grebe at Jamaica Pond, Boston, from December 6 to 26 is the first record for Suffolk County. It is the third record for the state this year, with others in Beverly and Wellfleet, in what has been an exceptional year for the species.

A hatch-year male Rufous Hummingbird was banded in Orleans on December 2 after first appearing in mid-November. This species is now recorded annually in the state, typically between October and December.

A new high count for Sandhill Cranes was set when 36 birds flew over an observer at the Delaney Wildlife Management Area on November 3. In contrast to the multiple records in November, there were none in December—the first time the species has been missed in December since 2014.

The only rare shorebird of the period was an American Avocet at Barnstable on November 7. Otherwise, shorebird news was highlighted by late departures. The latest record of Semipalmated Plover was a single bird in Fairhaven on New Year’s Eve. Though uncommon, this species occasionally tries to overwinter in the state and sometimes even succeeds. Piping Plovers are less hardy; most have departed for the southern Atlantic coast by October. A pair of birds at Provincetown on November 27 is the fourth latest record this century, with the latest being from Nantucket on December 30, 2018. Veit and Petersen (1993), however, note multiple historical records for January and February, suggesting the species may have been more successful in overwintering last century. A Hudsonian Godwit lingered at Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield until November 22, the sixth latest record for the state. A Semipalmated Sandpiper reported from Plum Island on December 12 is the fifth latest record for the state—the latest being December 20 in 1998—and a Solitary Sandpiper at Leicester on November 5 is the second latest record for the state.

December 6 produced a spectacular flight of Dovekies past First Encounter Beach in Eastham. Over a three-hour period 6,420 birds were recorded. The observers noted that, “[Great Back-backed Gulls] were unfortunately feasting on a number (20+); many groups blown up high over parking lot as seen and photographed through moon roof!” This flight beat the previous high count this century of 4,680 at Andrews Point on December 16, 2018. The Dovekie flight at First Encounter Beach also included 980 Razorbills, but this was eclipsed by the huge flight of 10,700 birds at the same location on November 24. This count is the highest for November, and the sixth highest count of Razorbills for the state.

The winner of the most surprising bird photo of the year award must surely go to Peter Flood, who captured a tiny, yellow-billed alcid being “photobombed” by the long-staying Sabine’s Gull at Race Point Beach on November 9. The alcid was an Ancient Murrelet found earlier that day by Amy O’Neill—just the fourth record for Massachusetts. The first state record of this north Pacific alcid was from Halibut Point, Rockport, on November 29, 1992. The second and third were from Race Point, Provincetown, on January 4, 1998, and Andrews Point, Rockport, on February 5, 1999. All have been one-day wonders, including this period’s, almost 21 years after the first. Although this sighting was the only North American record away from the Pacific coast in 2020, Ancient Murrelets do exhibit a pattern of extreme vagrancy. There are records throughout the Great Lakes, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Montreal, and multiple occurrences in Maine. There was even a bird present in a colony of Atlantic Puffins on Lundy Island, Devon, England during the summers of 1990–1992, which remains the only record for the Western Palearctic.

A Pacific Loon photographed at Gooseberry Neck, Westport, on November 8 was a long overdue first for Bristol County. This species has now been recorded in seven Massachusetts counties, including a single inland record for Hampshire County at Quabbin Reservoir on November 11, 2015. It is still missing from the coastal counties of Suffolk and Norfolk.

N. Hayward


October and November have historically been the best months to encounter Golden Eagles in the state. This year, there were ten reports in October and six reports in November. The majority of observations were from western Massachusetts, although a surprise flyover in Concord was especially welcome for one birder who added it to his state life list. Many birders are accustomed to seeing Red-tailed Hawks on almost all of our outings and may not notice that they are at their peak migration during this period. Blueberry Hill in Granville, for example, logged 58 Red-tailed Hawks during November. Other dedicated hawkwatch stations continued their observations into November, logging Red-tailed Hawks and hoping for those Golden Eagles. The first Snowy Owl of the season was reported at Logan Airport on November 5 and a total of five were seen at Logan during the Greater Boston Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on December 19.

Birders have come to expect a flurry of rare bird sightings during November and December, and this season was a banner year. The second state record of Pacific-slope Flycatcher was discovered at Fresh Pond in Cambridge on November 24, and was last seen on December 16. The first record for Massachusetts was discovered just last year in Hadley on October 25. A major snowstorm on the night of December 16 dumped over a foot of snow in the area and the flycatcher was never seen again; it was missing for the Greater Boston CBC held on Sunday, December 20. Other notable flycatchers included a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Manomet, an Ash-throated Flycatcher photographed in Salisbury, four reports of Western Kingbirds, and late records of both Least and Yellow-bellied flycatchers.

A Loggerhead Shrike was present in East Bridgewater for ten days in November to the delight of many birders. According to Veit and Petersen (1993), “As recently as the 1960s Loggerhead Shrikes were uncommon but regular migrants.” Only three reports have been noted in recent years: Chatham in 2012, Martha’s Vineyard last year, and a cooperative bird at the Turner Falls Airport, also last year. Another infrequent vagrant to the state this period included a Chestnut-collared Longspur in Eastham. This is only the fifth record for the state, with the most recent at Plum Island on December 15, 2004. A Brewer’s Blackbird was reported and photographed in Dighton on November 9–10. This sighting is the second report this year, after a one-day wonder on the Amherst–Hadley line on October 11. Before this year, the last record for the state was in Ipswich on November 9, 2002. Finally, two different Spotted Towhees were noted, one from South Dartmouth and another from Rockport. Only three previous state records for this species exist, with the most recent report from Martha’s Vineyard in January 2015.

Other “misoriented” birds—species that show up during migration but far off their normal routes—included a Mountain Bluebird in Provincetown, a Varied Thrush in Sudbury, and a Sage Thrasher in Hatfield that was just the fifth state record. Other unusual species that almost always show up during this period include Summer Tanager, Western Tanager, and Painted Bunting. Among the 23 warbler species reported were two Yellow-throated Warblers and a Townsend’s Warbler that was photographed in Fairhaven.

Birders continued to enjoy this year’s irruption of winter finches. Red Crossbills, sometimes numbering 50 to 100 individuals, were present throughout the period at Salisbury State Beach Reservation along with good numbers of Common Redpolls and a smaller number of White-winged Crossbills. Similar numbers were noted from Outer Cape Cod, including one flock of 300-plus Red Crossbills in North Truro. The first Pine Grosbeaks arrived in our area in mid-November, with most reports from northern Worcester, Franklin, and Berkshire counties. Hoary Redpolls were reported from eight locations. One cooperative individual took up residence for four days along the Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston.

Two other boreal species—Boreal Chickadee and Canada Jay—were reported this period. Both are rare and irregular migrants that occasionally wander into Massachusetts. Reports of Boreal Chickadees have historically coincided with major flights of Black-capped Chickadees, typically when cone crops are scarce in the northern forests. Boreal Chickadees were noted in five locations during the period this year, the first records for the state since a bird visiting a feeder in Peru for over a month in 2017. A Canada Jay was photographed in Great Barrington, the first report of this species in the state since a bird at Gate 41 at the Quabbin Reservoir from November 4 to 16, 2014.

R. Stymeist

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