February 2021

Vol. 49, No. 1

Bird Sightings: September–October 2020

Neil Hayward and Robert H. Stymeist

September’s weather was as good as it gets with comfortable temperatures, dry air, and lots of sunshine. Labor Day weekend saw the mercury hit the mid-70s, perfect for birding. The first frost advisory was issued on September 20 for much of our area—though not in Boston—and marked the first unseasonably cool weather of late summer and early autumn. Hurricane Teddy passed well to the east of Massachusetts on September 22 but still had an impact on coastal communities producing very high seas in Bristol, Dukes, and Nantucket counties. Strong winds up to 72 miles per hour were noted on the last day of the month, resulting in many downed trees and widespread power outages.


Most of October was seasonable. The high for the month in Boston was 78 degrees on October 10, and the low was a chilly 28 degrees on Halloween. There were 16 days during the month with some precipitation. Boston recorded 4.98 inches of rain, just over an inch above average for the month. The big weather story this month was the snowstorm on the last day of the month; Halloween looked more like Christmas Day, with 4.3 inches of snow measured in Boston. This set an October snowfall record, breaking the previous record of 1.1 inches, set on Halloween 2005. Some areas saw more than half a foot of snow; Natick had six inches, Worcester 6.5 inches, and Braintree 7.5 inches—the highest total in the state.

R. Stymeist


Since the first accepted record of Barnacle Goose to the state list in 2002, the species has become somewhat of a regular year tick. It has been missed in only three of the past 20 years and has been recorded in every county except those of Cape Cod and the Islands. The first bird of the 2020–21 winter appeared in the Northampton area on October 12, one day shy of the earliest fall record. This was also the first Barnacle Goose found in the United States this winter, with others reported from as early as September 10 in Canada (Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia). Even rarer than this year’s Barnacle Goose were the bird’s fellow travelers: four geese that appear to be Barnacle X Cackling Goose hybrids. Young geese are known to migrate with their parents, and this may represent a family group. Indeed, the “Carnacle” or “Barkling” hybrids were still with the Barnacle Goose at the end of the month when they were re-found in Connecticut. What the non-Barnacle parent might be is debatable. Hybridization is more likely between similar-sized birds, which would make Cackling Goose or Lesser Canada Goose (Branta canadensis parvipes) the best matches for the diminutive Barnacle. Indeed—and perhaps surprisingly—Cackling Goose has been shown to be genetically closer (i.e., more related) to Barnacle Goose than it is to Canada Goose (Paxinos et al. 2002). Where these birds were born is also a mystery. While numbers of Barnacle Geese are increasing in Greenland, the smaller white-cheeked geese are extremely rare there. More likely, perhaps, is a vagrant Barnacle Goose that wintered in North America and stayed to breed, pairing with a Cackling or Canada goose. More about this fascinating taxon can be found in Johnson, 2014. In other goose news this period, Cackling and Greater White-fronted geese were reported from an above-average six and three counties, respectively. Berkshire County scored its first September record of Snow Goose, with a single bird at Pittsfield on September 19.

Figure 1. Number of months in which Rufous Hummingbird has been recorded in Massachusetts for the period 1992–2020. Data from

A hybrid also dominated the duck news this period. A Bufflehead X Common Goldeneye, which one observer described as an “upside down Bufflehead,” was found in North Adams on October 27. This bird shared the entire continent this period with only one other such hybrid near Denver, Colorado. This is the second record of this taxon for Massachusetts, after a returning bird in Orleans (spring 2018 and the winter of 2019–20), and the third for New England (a bird wintered near Keene, New Hampshire, in 2015–2018). A male King Eider off Revere Beach on October 31 is the earliest winter record for Suffolk County. This was a good season for Black Scoter, with new high counts for the period for Bristol (356), Plymouth (3,022), and Suffolk (60) counties. An Eared Grebe was photographed at Wellfleet Town Pier on September 24. This is the second record for this year, after a bird was present for over two weeks off the coast of Beverly in February.

Early September saw a strong passage of Common Nighthawks. A high of 1,100 birds was reported in Northampton on September 3, the highest count for the month since September 1, 1995. Rufous Hummingbirds were photographed in October visiting backyard feeders and flowering plants in Mendon and North Dartmouth. This western species has been annual to the state since 1994, with one miss in 2009. October is the most likely month in which to find one (see Figure 1). Rufous Hummers were reported throughout the Northeast this period including Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, and New Brunswick.

A family of Common Gallinules with young was found in Richmond, Berkshire County, in September. This is the second successful breeding this year, after young were discovered at Monomoy NWR this summer. Common Gallinule is listed as a Species of Special Concern under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act.

An American Avocet had been present on and off at Plum Island this year since June 16. That streak ended on October 7. Another bird was at Yarmouth for the middle of September. A Purple Sandpiper was photographed at Holyoke Dam on October 30. It is the first record for Hampshire County and only the third significantly inland record for the state, after birds in Pittsfield in 1953 and 1963 that also appeared in the last week of October (Veit and Petersen, 1993). A Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Race Point Beach in Provincetown on October 2 and another at Martha’s Vineyard on October 10 are the first October records for the state for a decade.

A South Polar Skua was photographed at Race Point on October 3. This is only the fourth October record for the state per eBird, with the late date being October 12 set last year. The first Common Murre of the winter was spotted off Rockport on October 13. This is the earliest October record, but not the earliest winter record; in 2017 and 2019, single birds were recorded on September 23 and September 1 respectively.

“The” Race Point Sabine’s Gull continued throughout the period. This bird has been present in Provincetown and outer Cape Cod since July 12. Bonaparte’s Gulls are uncommon away from the coast, and this period Worcester and Hampden counties scored their first September and October records respectively. This has been a good year for Franklin’s Gull, with records in June, July, and August. This period, an adult was found at Easthampton on October 26, the third record of this attractive hooded gull for Hampshire County.

There were some notable late records of terns this period. A count of 250 Forster’s Terns at First Encounter Beach on September 23 is a new high for the month, while Nantucket scored its second October record with 12 birds on Tuckernuck Island on October 10. A Royal Tern found in Acoaxet on October 24 is the first October record for Bristol County, and the second latest for the state this century after a bird at Plum Island on November 4, 2005. Veit and Peterson, 1993, note four November records of Royal Tern last century with the latest being November 25–27, 1979. Up to 14 Black Skimmers were at Point of Pines in Revere from September 30–October 12, which represents a new high count for Suffolk County (the previous record was nine birds in 2013).

Race Point hosted up to three Pacific Loons this period, with individuals donning alternate (breeding) and basic (winter) plumage, as well as a molting bird wearing something in between. Single alternate-plumaged birds flew by Andrews Point in Rockport on October 12 and 13. On September 22, 107 Leach’s Storm-Petrels were recorded flying past Corporation Beach in Dennis, the highest September count since 2001. On the same day, a Brown Booby was observed flying past Andrews Point on September 22. Three Audubon’s Shearwaters were photographed south of Nantucket on September 6. These are the only records this year, which is more a reflection of cancelled pelagics in a pandemic year than the scarcity of the species.

A candidate for Massachusetts Bird of the Year—a Gray Heron—was discovered by Skyler Kardell on Tuckernuck Island on September 5. It was relocated at neighboring Muskeget Island by the same observer the following day. And then it was gone. This represents the first record for the Lower 48, and the fifth record for the United States, with the previous four records all coming from western Alaska (Howell et al, 2014). There are at least seven records for Canada, including the first record for North America—a moribund bird discovered in Newfoundland in 1996. Based on flight photos, the Massachusetts bird appears be the same Gray Heron that was present in Nova Scotia from June 28–August 22 earlier this year. A month after the bird was found in Massachusetts, a Gray Heron was photographed at Chincoteague NWR and then at Cheriton Landfill, both in Virginia. While none of the photos showed that bird in flight, the consensus seems to be that the Massachusetts and Virginia birds are different individuals.

A Cattle Egret was present at Hadley on October 16. It was only the fourth record of the egret this year, which makes this the quietest year this century for the species. Horn Pond and Mystic Lakes hosted the first October record of Snowy Egret for Middlesex County, with a bird lingering until October 17. Revere recorded a new Suffolk County high of 32 Snowys on October 2. The 17 Yellow-crowned Night-Herons found at Barnstable on October 4 represent a state new high for the month.

N. Hayward


The fall migration of raptors is at its best in September. The most popular sites for hawkwatchers in Massachusetts are Mount Wachusett in Princeton and nearby Mount Watatic in Ashburnham. Broad-winged Hawks are the big attraction. The ideal weather for a good flight is a northeasterly wind. September 18 was the day to be out with good weather conditions, when 12,087 Broad-winged Hawks were cumulatively tallied from five hawkwatch locations. Other noteworthy sightings for the period included 10 reports of Golden Eagles with three noted from Shatterock Mountain in Russell, two immature Mississippi Kites on Mount Wachusett on September 4, and the first Rough-legged Hawk of the fall also at Mount Wachusett on October 31.

The big news this period was the invasion of winter finches into our area. The first indication that this could be a big flight year was the explosion of Red-breasted Nuthatches back in mid-August. Counts in excess of 40 individuals were noted in many areas throughout the state; Mark Lynch tallied 172 birds in Winchendon on September 6. By the end of September and the first week of October, it became obvious that this would be a very good year for an irruption of boreal birds. A severe spruce budworm outbreak was certainly a key in bringing these finches south. Purple Finches and Pine Siskins were the first to arrive in big numbers; more than 1,000 siskins were estimated on Nantucket and another 950 on nearby Tuckernuck Island on October 9, and counts exceeding 125 were common throughout the state. High counts of Purple Finches include an estimated 100 at Horn Pond in Woburn and 85 at Dunback Meadow in Lexington. By mid-October, Evening Grosbeaks started to show up in modest numbers and were joined in the last 10 days of October by Common Redpolls. Red Crossbills have almost taken up residence in the state, being reported continuously since early July. Flocks of 20-plus crossbills were reported in a number of areas during this period. The last days of October saw the first White-winged Crossbills move into our area.

Some of our more common migrants were reported in good numbers including 18 Olive-sided Flycatchers, 20 Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, 23 Philadelphia Vireos, 40 Clay-colored Sparrows, and 12 Dickcissels. Thirty-six species of warbler were noted during the period, with highlights including one Golden-winged, 3 Prothonotary, 33 Connecticut, one Kentucky, 10 Hooded, and 4 Yellow-throated. Two vagrant species were reported: one Black-throated Gray Warbler photographed on Plum Island and three Townsend’s Warblers.

September and October birding in Massachusetts can be exciting, given the historical precedent of vagrants showing up. This period in 2020 was exceptional, with reports of three Western Kingbirds, a Say’s Phoebe on Martha’s Vineyard, a Bell’s Vireo in Barnstable, a very cooperative Northern Wheatear on Plum Island, a Western Meadowlark on Cuttyhunk, four Yellow-headed Blackbirds, a Brewer’s Blackbird, a Summer Tanager, and a Painted Bunting in East Falmouth.

R. Stymeist


  • Howell, S. N. G., I. Lewington, and W. Russell. 2014. Rare Birds of North America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Johnson, T. 2014. Carnacle Geese? Barkling Geese? Thoughts on an Intriguing Goose Family from New Jersey. Birding 46 (2): 52–54.
  • Paxinos, E. E., H. F. James, S. L. Olson, M. D. Sorenson, J. Jackson, and R. C. Fleischer. 2002. mtDNA from fossils reveals a radiation of Hawaiian geese recently derived from the Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 99 (3): 1399-1404.
  • Veit, R. R., and W. R. Petersen. 1993. Birds of Massachusetts. Lincoln, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Audubon Society.

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