December 2021

Vol. 49, No. 6

Bird Sightings: July-August 2021

Neil Hayward and Robert H. 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. This summer the AOS published their 62nd update (Chesser, R. T. et al.).

The biggest change for Massachusetts birders in the 62nd update is the addition of one species to the state list; Mew Gull was split into Common Gull and Short-billed Gull, both of which have been recorded in the state. The genus Phalacrocorax, which previously served as an umbrella genus for Old and New World cormorants, has been split. Phalacrocorax (sensu strictu) is now an Old World genus, although retains our Great Cormorant. Our Double-crested Cormorant is now Nannopterum auritum, sitting in the same genus as the extralimital Neotropic Cormorant. Within the kinglet family, Regulidae, Ruby-crowned Kinglet is now recognized as being sufficiently different from Golden-crowned as to warrant its own genus, Corthylio, and now appears before Golden-crowned Kinglet in the linear sequence order.


Statistically, July is one of the sunniest months of the year, but not this year. Boston, like many municipalities in New England, set a record for most July days with measurable rain. A total of 10.07 inches of precipitation fell over 19 days during the month, Boston’s second wettest July since 1872. July was also unusually cold; a high temperature of 60 degrees in Boston on July 3 set a new historical record for the coldest high temperature for the city for July. Worcester logged a high of only 57 degrees that day, setting its own record for lowest high temperature for the city on that date. For only the third time in Boston since 1872, July was colder than June. The month ended with no heat wave nor even a prolonged stretch of warm weather. Boston’s average temperature for the month was 1.7 degrees below normal. On July 9, Tropical Storm Elsa made landfall at Watch Hill, Rhode Island, the first tropical storm to hit New England directly since Tropical Storm Beryl in 2006. Elsa brought extensive flooding to most of eastern Massachusetts. Boston picked up 2.04 inches of rain from Elsa, while other towns to the west and south reported nearly four inches. Elsa, however, was a dud for bringing in any significant pelagic birds along the coast.


August started out much more pleasantly than July. There were nine days on which the mercury hit 90 degrees or above during the month, although rainfall continued to be above average. Precipitation totaled 7.00 inches in Boston, 3.77 inches above normal for August. There were 15 days with measurable rain during the month. The remnant of Tropical Storm Fred brought some heavy rain mid-month mainly to the west and north of Boston. Tropical Storm Henri, which stayed mostly offshore, followed quickly on the heels of Fred. Henri brought strong winds mainly to Cape Cod and the Islands, and good numbers of pelagic birds off the Nantucket Shoals.

R. Stymeist


Fig. 1. July and August high counts of Red Knot in Massachusetts, 2000–2021. Data from

Seven Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks were photographed in Chilmark on July 30—the largest group of this peregrinating southern breeder since a flock of 11 were found in Sandwich in 2016. Earlier in July, singles were also reported from Falmouth and Tuckernuck Island.

Duck news featured some high numbers for August; a count of 41 Blue-winged Teal at Plum Island is the highest count for the month in over a decade and five Ring-necked Ducks at Monomoy is the second-highest count for August this century. Ring-necked Duck is a rare breeder in the state (most recently at Royalston this year) and has been detected on Monomoy in August since 2018, indicative of possible breeding.

Pied-billed Grebe is listed as “endangered” under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA). Successful breeding was confirmed this year at Richmond Marsh, where a pair with six stripy-headed young were observed on August 1. This Berkshire hotspot had also hosted a breeding pair with young in 2018. Common Gallinule—another waterbird species listed under MESA—bred nearby at Beach Road Marsh in Richmond, where up to four juveniles were observed. An adult Purple Gallinule was photographed by a birder in a kayak at the Cutler Park Reservation, Needham on August 4. The bird then flew across the river to Millennium Park, to become the first record for Suffolk County. Purple Gallinules are almost annual to the state, with this bird being the first this year. It is only the third August record this century; most records are in October.

A White-winged Dove was photographed under feeders at Provincetown on August 11. This migratory southern dove is almost annual to the state, with this Provincetown record being the first one this year.

Sandhill Cranes nested in a record five counties this summer: Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire, Plymouth, and Worcester. This species was first confirmed nesting in the state at New Marlboro in 2007 and then again in 2016 in Worthington, after which reports and breeding records have increased steadily.

The shorebird highlight of the period was the remarkable inland sighting of 104 Hudsonian Godwits at Longmeadow on August 23—the highest count for the state since 2001 and the first record for Hampden County since 1987. The birds were photographed flying south a day after the arrival of Tropical Storm Henri. A Stilt Sandpiper at Longmeadow at the end of August was an unusual inland record. An American Avocet was on Outer Cape Cod from August 22—the same fall arrival date for the state as in 2019 and 2020. An American Golden-Plover at Eastham on August 10 was the earliest fall migrant of that species to the state since 2009. Four Piping Plovers were seen at Cohasset in August. This species bred at nearby Wollaston Beach this year—the second breeding record for Norfolk County after the first record in 2020.

The American subspecies of Red Knot, Calidris canutus rufa, is often held up as the poster child for shorebird population declines—blamed on a combination of climate change, habitat loss, and horseshoe crab over-harvesting in the Delaware Bay, a key stopover site on their annual migration between South America and the Arctic. A count of 25 Red Knots on Monomoy on July 5 is the lowest July record for Massachusetts and well below even last year’s high of 490 (see Figure 1). The August high of 450 is the second lowest this century. Sadly, this low number is consistent with Red Knot reports from the Delaware Bay this spring; northbound migrants represented only about a third of those counted in 2020 (Hurdle 2021). The species has been federally listed as threatened since 2014.

A count of seven Atlantic Puffins past Andrews Point on July 8 is a high for the month. A young Sabine’s Gull was photographed at Race Point Beach on July 24, perhaps one of the birds seen there in May earlier this year. This year continues to be good for seeing Sandwich Terns, with two records this period, including the first record for Bristol County since 2013.

Tropical Storm Henri passed mostly to the west of Massachusetts on August 22. What it lacked in number and diversity of pelagic vagrants —no Sooty Terns, inland jaegers, or storm-petrels—it made up for in quality: a Magnificent Frigatebird seen by many birders in Dorchester Bay on August 22. This was the ninth record of this piratic seabird this century, although that number belies their real rarity; many of these are one-day one-person wonders. Frigatebirds have been recorded in the state between May and October, with September and October hosting the lion’s share. This year’s bird was a first for Norfolk County.

This period provided some important data on our pelagic avifauna, with three boats targeting the continental shelf and the warm waters of the gulf stream. The Brookline Bird Club forayed into the waters southeast of Nantucket with their overnight “extreme pelagic” on August 7–8. Also exploring our southern waters were observers on two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) survey vessels: Tom Johnson on the NOAAS Henry B. Bigelow, and Doug Gochfeld and Alison Black on the NOAAS Pisces.

The rarest bird found by the pelagic spotters was Barolo Shearwater, with singles photographed by Tom Johnson on August 1 and by Doug Gochfeld and Alison Black on August 8. The latter bird, found south of Martha’s Vineyard, represents the westernmost documented record for the Atlantic Ocean. These are the third and fourth records of this diminutive shearwater for the state; the first two came from BBC pelagic trips on August 25 in both 2007 and 2012. Audubon’s Shearwaters are expected in the deeper, warm waters of the Gulf Stream and were seen in good numbers by all three boats. A one-hour period count of 160 birds from the NOAAS Pisces on the afternoon of August 9 was unprecedented for the state and occurred as the boat was passing through water nearing 80 degrees and covered with sargassum. White-faced Storm-Petrels were also seen by all three boats, delighting viewers with their characteristic kangaroo hopping. Three adult White-tailed Tropicbirds were photographed by Tom Johnson on August 18–19. The last record of this species was an adult seen by Alison Black on the NOAAS Henry B. Bigelow on June 30, before which the species had not been recorded since 2015. Johnson also logged a Bridled Tern on July 31, the first one for the state since July 2016. Black-capped Petrels were seen on seven days from the NOAAS Henry B. Bigelow with a maximum count of 15 on August 10. The biggest miss for the Brookline Bird Club trip was Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, because August is the best time to see this bird in our waters. The species was detected in small numbers by the two NOAA boats. A subadult Masked Booby was spotted from the NOAAS Henry B. Bigelow on August 9. It is only the fifth record for the state—the first was in September 2015—and the fourth in August. The same boat also logged an adult Brown Booby on August 17. An immature Brown Booby was photographed on a whale watch at Stellwagen Bank on July 10.

Nationally, 2021 will be remembered as the summer of the spoonbill. Roseate Spoonbills were reported well north of their range, with New Hampshire, Michigan, and the District of Columbia scoring their first records of this colorful and enigmatic wader, while New York and Pennsylvania hosted numerous birds this summer. Massachusetts did not miss out on the fun; a juvenile spoonbill—a first for the state—was present at Corbin’s Neck, Ashley Falls, on August 8–11. White Ibises wandered north of their range in a similar fashion, with Massachusetts hosting an adult at Wayland on July 30 and an immature also at Wayland on August 16–17; the same immature was then photographed flying over Dighton on August 18. Although an exciting draw for local birders, the phenomenon speaks of trouble farther south. Kevin Welsh, a biologist with the Audubon Everglades Science Center, has noted an increase in nest failure of Roseate Spoonbills in the Everglades in recent years and believes the birds are moving north, “mostly due to rising water levels here in the southern peninsula in Florida. They’re losing ideal foraging habitat for them to be able to get the young birds to reach fledgling age.” Connecticut, Maine, and Québec logged their first spoonbill records in 2018, and New Brunswick in 2020. Chances are, if you missed the bird at Corbin’s Neck—and many did as it was a frustrating and difficult bird to pin down—you may not have to wait too long for another.

N. Hayward


Before its ban in 1972, the insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) wreaked havoc on the Osprey population by thinning eggshells and reducing their breeding potential. According to Veit and Petersen (1993), “In 1970, there were fewer than 10 successful nests in Massachusetts, all of them along the Westport River”. After the ban, Ospreys rebounded and prospered; today there are well over 200 nesting pairs in the state. This summer, Steve Babbitt conducted a survey of Ospreys from Hellcat Tower on Plum Island. He reported more than 35 nests that were visible from the tower, including nests on the mainland side of the sound. He tallied an impressive count of 45 adults and nestlings.

The raptor highlight of the period was a Swallow-tailed Kite in Mashpee. There were two other recent sightings of this handsome raptor from July: Chatham in 2011 and Nantucket in 2015. Merlin is a rare breeder in the state and a report of a pair in Williamstown that successfully raised two young was notable.

July and August are a transition period, with reports of breeding birds and the beginning of fall migration. Mark Lynch and Sheila Carroll surveyed the town of Hardwick on July 11; their results confirmed a successful breeding season. Some of the impressive totals included 54 Veeries, 16 Wood Thrushes, 12 Chestnut-sided Warblers, and 15 Scarlet Tanagers. Acadian Flycatchers, once rare, were presumed breeders in several locations. In Southwick, on the Connecticut border, as many as 12 Grasshopper Sparrows were noted along with a pair of Dickcissels that successfully raised two young.

The fall migration of many of our visiting summer breeders gets underway in August. One of the highlights is the gathering of thousands of Tree Swallows on Plum Island. This year, over 40,000 were estimated. Philadelphia Vireos are unusual in the spring but regular in the fall; August 2021 was no exception with five reports during the last weeks of August. Yellow-bellied Flycatchers are generally the last to arrive in the spring but are among the first to leave in the fall. Migrant Yellow-bellieds were found on Plum Island and in Rowley on August 28. For the July and August period, 29 warbler species were reported, compared with 34 species noted during the same period last year. Some of the more unusual birds noted in August included a Yellow-headed Blackbird in Concord, Lark Sparrows in Eastham and Plum Island, a Clay-colored Sparrow in Windsor, Blue Grosbeaks in three locations, and Dickcissels in eight different locations.

Red Crossbills were noted from Gate 33 at the Quabbin Reservoir as well as many from Berkshire County locations, including a count of 65 from Pittsfield. Single Pine Siskins were noted in four scattered locations in the state. 

R. Stymeist


  • Chesser, R. T., S. M. Billerman, K. J. Burns, C. Cicero, J. L. Dunn, B.E. Hernandez-Banos, A. W. Kratter, I. J. Lovette, N. A. Mason, P. C. Rasmussen, J. V. Remsen Jr., D. F. Stotz, and K. Winker. 2021. Sixty-second Supplement to the American Ornithological Society’s Check-list of North American Birds. Auk, Volume 138, Issue 3, 1 July 2021, ukab037,
  • Hurdle, J. 2021. Red Knots in Steepest Decline in Years, Threatening the Species’ Survival. The New York Times. Print edition of June 15, 2021, page D2. Published online June 5, 2021 at: Accessed October 18, 2021.
  • Veit, R. R., and W. R. Petersen. 1993. Birds of Massachusetts. Lincoln, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Audubon Society.

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