June 2021

Vol. 49, No. 3

Bird Sightings: January–February 2021

Neil Hayward and Robert H. Stymeist

The exceptionally mild weather between Christmas and the New Year continued well into January. The temperature was above average for 16 days in January, with a high of 52 degrees recorded on January 16. A winter storm brought a mix of rain and snow and bitter cold on January 27—prior to which Boston had only recorded three-tenths of an inch of snow for the month. Snow totals from the storm were 4.4 inches at Logan Airport in Boston, 5.3 inches in Worcester, 2.5–4.0 inches on Cape Cod, and 13 inches in the town of Savoy in Berkshire County.

A nor’easter rolled across Massachusetts on February 1, dumping up to a foot of snow in central and western parts of the state. Farther east, Lowell topped the list with 24 inches, Wilmington recorded 20 inches, and Athol measured 22 inches, which was the highest total for Worcester County. Greater Boston received far less as the warm front turned snow into rain along the coast; Logan Airport recorded just 1.2 inches of snow compared to 3.8 inches in West Roxbury, only a few miles inland. Within a week, another snowstorm and cold front hit the region. Boston recorded a low temperature of 7 degrees on February 7, and an additional 3–6 inches of snow. More snow arrived on February 19–20, bringing another 3–6 inches throughout the state, with higher amounts in southeastern Massachusetts—Barnstable measured 7.7 inches and Dartmouth had 7.5 inches. Total snowfall for the month recorded at Logan Airport was 15.3 inches, 4.4 inches above normal.

R. Stymeist


Bristol County has become one of the most reliable places to find rare geese in North America. This period, a Pink-footed Goose was present in Dartmouth, marking the fourth year in a row that the county has hosted this rare goose. Cackling Geese were reported from three counties, which is below average for the period.

Blue-winged Teals were reported from two locations on Cape Cod, where the species has been wintering annually since 2012. A count of three Eurasian Wigeons on Nantucket is the highest in the state since 2016. Redhead numbers have been increasing in Massachusetts in recent years, and a count of 39 on Nantucket is the highest period count for the state since 1997. The 12 Redheads at Waltham is the highest count for Middlesex County since 2006. A female Tufted Duck at Eastham from mid-February was the first record for Outer Cape Cod. King Eiders were reported from three counties, which is about average for this species. Two hybrid ducks made the news this period. A Common Goldeneye X Hooded Merganser hybrid at Chatham on January 24 is the first eBird record for Barnstable County. This hybrid taxon has previously been reported from Essex, Plymouth, and Middlesex counties. An American Wigeon X Mallard hybrid was reported from Sandwich on January 14, one of about 10 records in the country this period. Apart from one record in Connecticut, all the New England eBird records for this taxon have come from Massachusetts, where it has been annual since 2016.

An Eared Grebe was discovered at Marblehead on January 11 and stayed throughout the period. In February 2020, a bird was present for two weeks in nearby Beverly, about five miles as the grebe flies.

The immature male Rufous Hummingbird in Orleans continued throughout the period. This bird was banded on December 2 after first appearing in mid-November.

An adult and immature Common Gallinule were present on Nantucket in January. This was the northernmost record on the continent, except for a bird in Newfoundland. A Yellow Rail was reported to the Bird Watcher’s General Store in Orleans. It was found dead in the wrack line at Harding’s Beach, Chatham, on February 5. This is the first record since November 2017, although given the cryptic nature of the species the majority of migrant Yellow Rails are undoubtedly overlooked. Most historical records are from the fall, peaking in October.

A number of shorebirds made unseasonal appearances this period. American Oystercatchers occasionally linger into January, and this year a pair at Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, on January 2–3 were the northernmost birds on the continent. A very late Piping Plover was found at Hyannis on January 5. This is the only eBird record for January in Massachusetts. There are, however, historical precedents, with at least January records on Cape Cod from the past century (Veit and Petersen, 1993). Long-billed Dowitchers are similarly rare in the winter. A bird at Plum Island on January 12 is only the sixth January record this century. Greater Yellowlegs were recorded from a record six counties this period. The previous high was four counties in 2013 and 2000.

An incredible 61 Atlantic Puffins were counted flying north past First Encounter Beach, Eastham, on January 7—an additional 12 southbound birds were excluded from the count to avoid potential double-counting. This count was the highest for the continent this period, beating the 19 recorded on a pelagic trip out of Hatteras, North Carolina, on February 21. It was also the second-highest count for Massachusetts, after the 104 birds logged at Andrews Point, Rockport, on October 12, 2002. A count of 228 Common Murres past Andrews Point on January 16 is the highest period count for Essex County since 2007. Razorbill numbers this period were below average.

The larid highlight of the period was a one-person one-day wonder: an adult Ivory Gull observed by Rick Heil flying past Andrews Point on January 2. This sighting was nearly 44 years to the day since the only other record of this species from the same location—and by the same observer—on January 8, 1977. It is the first record of Ivory Gull for the state since January 2010, when birds were recorded at Race Point, Provincetown, and at Westport. An adult Thayer’s Gull—now demoted to a subspecies of Iceland Gull—was photographed at Race Point on January 17, the first record of this taxon since May 2019, which was also an adult at Race Point. A Mew Gull was discovered on Nantucket on February 25. This species has been recorded almost annually since 1990, although the pattern is complicated by four subspecies that stretch almost circumglobally. Based on the primary pattern, the current record is thought to be of the Russian subspecies Larus canus kamtschatschensis and would be the only record of this taxon on the continent this year. A Bonaparte’s Gull at Quabbin Reservoir on January 20 is the first eBird period record for Hampshire County. This species is rare inland, typically appearing in April and May and then again in October and November. Laughing Gulls are similarly rare in the winter. A single bird at Harwich on January 9–11 represents only the sixth January record this century and the first since 2016. A count of 185 Lesser Black-backed Gulls on Nantucket on February 25 is the third-highest count for the state (the highest is 207 at Monomoy NWR on September 17, 2018). The population of Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the state—especially those in Nantucket—has been increasing steadily over the past two decades (see Figure 1).

Up to three Pacific Loons were reported from Race Point, Provincetown. Sooty Shearwaters are rare in the state after November. In recent years, single birds have been recorded in January, including two sightings this year on Cape Cod in mid-January.

Up to two Great Egrets lingered at Plum Island into January, the first January records for Essex County since 2012 and 1999.

N. Hayward


October raptor highlights during the period included continuing high numbers of Black Vultures, especially in southwest Berkshire County, where as many as 28 were counted in Ashley Falls. Twenty-six Black Vultures were tallied in Blackstone, along the Rhode Island border. Golden Eagles were noted from four locations, and the only Northern Goshawk reported during the period was an adult from Marlborough. Two Long-eared Owls were found at Salisbury and remained through the period to the delight of many birders, who observed from a safe distance. There were 12 individual Short-eared Owls reported including four in Hadley.

This season’s winter finch irruption continued through the period in exceptional numbers. Large groups of Common Redpolls numbering well into the hundreds were noted throughout the state. Birders had wonderful opportunities to study, identify, and photograph many Hoary Redpolls. Both Red and White-winged crossbills continued throughout our area. The Campground at Salisbury State Park allowed close encounters with crossbills presenting excellent photographic opportunities. Pine Grosbeaks continued mostly in western Massachusetts and were entirely absent on the South Shore, Cape Cod, and the islands.

Among the vagrants were some holdovers from December, including the cooperative Varied Thrush from Sudbury, the Sage Thrasher from Hatfield, Yellow-throated Warblers from Lancaster and Hingham, and a Western Tanager in Brewster. An Ash-throated Flycatcher was found in Sagamore. This is only the third record for the period within the past 10 years—the two previous records were from Cambridge and Manomet in January 2016. Birders in search of the flycatcher turned up a Townsend’s Warbler in the same neighborhood. Cape Cod seems to be a hotspot for Painted Buntings during the winter months, as three different birds were noted during the period. Over the past 10 years, as many as 20 Painted Buntings have been seen during winter months on Cape Cod.

Other interesting reports during the period include a Cliff Swallow photographed on Nantucket on February 26 following strong southwest winds. This date eclipsed the previous earliest date reported for this species of March 8. Yellow-breasted Chats were noted from eight localities; many of them were present for several days. Unusual warblers found during this period included an Ovenbird in Woods Hole and a Tennessee Warbler coming to a feeder in Athol.

R. Stymeist


  • Veit, R. R., and W. R. Petersen. 1993. Birds of Massachusetts. Lincoln, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Audubon Society.

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