Tag Archives: last month in birding

Last Month in Birding: February 2016

Here are five incredible bird sightings from last month as suggested by Mass Audubon’s experts.

Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii)

The largest loon species in the world, this bird breeds on the high Arctic tundra, farther north than our familiar common loon. Scientists still have much to learn about its habits. Outside of certain Arctic and west coast locations, it’s only rarely observed, and sightings from the east coast are almost unheard-of. In fact, it had never before been recorded in Massachusetts—until this February and March, when a yellow-billed loon was found bobbing in the waves off of Provincetown.

Yellow-billed loon at Provincetown © Steve Arena

Yellow-billed loon at Provincetown © Steve Arena

Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)

One of our most vividly colored bird species is the scarlet tanager; breeding males are cherry-red and black, and females are greenish-yellow. In the west, the scarlet tanager is replaced by the western tanager. Male western tanagers are yellow and black and only have red pigment on their heads; uniquely, this red pigment comes directly from the insects in their diet. In January and February a western tanager visited a private feeder in Rowley.


Western tanager in Rowley (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) nebirdsplus

Yellow-throated Warbler (Setophaga dominica)

This strikingly patterned bird is a common warbler in the southeastern US. It typically builds its nest in Spanish moss that hangs from tree branches in the open southern woodlands where it lives. The yellow-throated warbler normally winters along the Gulf coast and in Central America and the Caribbean islands—but one was spotted in Amesbury.

Amesbury © Amy

Yellow-throated warbler in Amesbury © Amy

Bullock’s Oriole (Icterus bullockii)

This species is similar to the familiar Baltimore oriole, except that the male Bullock’s oriole has a mostly orange face with a striking black eye stripe and a white wing patch. It’s a bird of the western US, but it occasionally interbreeds with the Baltimore oriole on the Great Plains where their ranges overlap. At one time the two species were lumped into one—the northern oriole—before scientists determined that they were genetically distinct. A Bullock’s oriole visited a bird feeder at a private residence in Newburyport.

Western Tanager (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) nebirdsplus

Bullock’s oriole in California (CC BY-ND 2.0) Jan Arendtsz

Mystery Gull

Now and then a bird appears that confounds the experts. Among the gulls standing on the ice last month at Turners Falls, one individual really stood out: a herring gull-sized bird with yellow legs. Experts proposed two possible identities. It could have been a yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis), a European species that breeds in the Mediterranean and the Azores. If so, the bird had wandered way out of range! The other option was that it was a hybrid—a mix of two species, in this case possibly herring and a lesser black-backed gulls. Either way, it was an unusual sighting and brought some much-needed excitement to sleepy February.

Gull at Turner's Falls © James P. Smith

Gull at Turner’s Falls © James P. Smith

Last Month in Birding: January 2016

Every month we share five amazing bird sightings as suggested by our experts. Here are a few interesting observations from January.

Smith’s Longspur (Calcarius pictus)

Like other longspurs, Smith’s longspur has a long claw (“spur”) on its hind toe. This bird breeds across parts of the western subarctic tundra. Its romantic life is complex. It’s polygynandrous: each male and female pairs with several others during the breeding season. Typically, all Smith’s longspurs spend the winter in a relatively confined region of the central US, so an individual spotted last month in Saugus was a special find—and only the second record ever for the state!

Smith's longspur © Oliver Burton

Smith’s longspur in Saugus © Oliver Burton

Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris)

The male Painted Bunting is one of our country’s most colorful birds. This finch is primarily a southern species, breeding in the southern and central US and Mexico, and generally overwintering farther south. This range, combined with its splash of bright colors, makes the painted bunting a birders’ favorite whenever it appears in the north. It’s usually a shy bird; however, it becomes conspicuous when it visits a feeder. Last month, a male was sighted at a bird feeder in Nantucket.


Painted bunting in Houston (CC BY 2.0) Ralph Arvesen

Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius)

This is another bird with striking colors. The varied thrush has a complex pattern of rusty orange, black, and stormy grey-blue. It’s about the same size and shape as the American robin, and the two species are related. It lives in parts of the western US and Canada, preferring dense old-growth coniferous forests. It eats insects in the warm months and seeds and berries in the winter. A varied thrush appeared last month in Rutland.


Varied thrush (CC BY-NC 2.0) Sylvia Wright

Hammond’s Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii)

This little flycatcher breeds in the western US and Canada and overwinters in Mexico and Central America. Flycatchers of the genus Empidonax are notoriously difficult to tell apart, but voice is a useful clue. A Hammond’s flycatcher was observed last month in Fairhaven, and luckily observers were able to gather both pictures and audio recordings to confirm its identity. It was only the second-ever record for Massachusetts.

Hammond's flycatcher in © Jeremiah Trimble

Hammond’s flycatcher in Fairhaven © Jeremiah Trimble

Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus)

This bird is slightly smaller than our familiar Canada goose, and true to its name, it has bubblegum-pink feet and legs. It breeds in Iceland, Greenland, and Svalbard, and winters in parts of Europe. Rarely, a few individuals head in the wrong direction and wind up in Canada and the US. A pink-footed goose was observed last month on the Connecticut River at Agawam in the company of Canada geese.

Pink footed goose

Pink-footed goose in Sweden (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Magnus Larsson

Last Month in Birding: December 2015

December brought another month of amazing bird sightings to Massachusetts. Here are a few interesting observations as suggested by our experts.

Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides)

This is a bird of wide open spaces in the west, where it breeds at higher elevations but overwinters on the grasslands and plains. It often forages by hovering above a field and looking down for insect prey. Whereas our familiar eastern bluebird has a rusty breast, the mountain bluebird is blue-grey to powdery blue, almost like a pair of faded old jeans. An individual seen at the Crane Wildlife Management Area in Falmouth was one of only a few records for Massachusetts.

Mountain bluebird in Falmouth © Tom Murray

Mountain bluebird in Falmouth © Tom Murray

Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)

A relative of the Canada goose, the barnacle goose has silvery-grey wings and a largely white face. It’s found in north-western Europe and Asia. Because this bird “disappears” to remote parts of the Arctic during the warm months, some Europeans developed a folk belief that it spent the summer developing underwater in the form of a barnacle. Various religious groups held that the barnacle goose’s supposed unusual life cycle meant that it wasn’t made of real animal meat—so it was O.K. to eat during fasts. Two barnacle geese (in goose form!) were seen in Agawam among a flock of Canada geese.

Barnacle goose in Longmeadow © Justin Lawson

Barnacle goose in a flock of Canada Geese, Longmeadow © Justin Lawson

Cave Swallow (Petrochelidon fulva)

In recent years, birders have increasingly observed an odd avian phenomenon along our coast. Swallows have been spotted flying over the chilly landscape long after our local swallow species have migrated south. Even more remarkable is the fact that they belong to a species that is normally found as far away as Texas, Mexico, and the Caribbean. These are cave swallows, and it’s not yet clear why they now visit us every year! Cave swallows were spotted last month in Lynn and Salisbury.

Cave swallow in Salisbury back in 2010 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) nebirdsplus

Cave swallow in Salisbury in 2010 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) nebirdsplus

Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri)

An adaptable species, the black-chinned hummingbird can be found in both remote wild lands and urban areas in the west. Its breeding range encompasses much of the western US, dipping into northern Mexico and north as far as western Canada. Most black-chinned hummingbirds spend the winter in Mexico and along the Gulf Coast. The male has a dark chin with iridescent purple at the base; the female is often difficult to identify in the field, but the task is made is easier when the bird is in handas was the case with an individual that was banded last month in Harwich. There have only been about five recorded occurrences of this species in Massachusetts!

Black-chinned hummingbird © Sean Williams

Black-chinned hummingbird in Harwich © Sean Williams

Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni)

The Swainson’s hawk is a bird of the Great Plains. While it’s raising young, it eats the typical hawk diet of small mammals, birds, and reptiles, but outside of the breeding season this species is mainly an insect eater; it’s adept at catching insects stirred up by agricultural activities. A Swainson’s hawk was seen at Bear Creek Park in Saugus. This was one of very few winter occurrences for this species in our region.

Swainson's hawk © Andrew Hrycyna

Swainson’s hawk in Saugus © Andrew Hrycyna

Last Month in Birding: October 2015

Every month we feature a few the past month’s bird sightings as suggested by our experts. Here are five notable observations from October.

Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus)

A living rainbow, this bird has enormous feet that enable it to walk across floating wetland plants such as lily pads. It can also swim. The purple gallinule is essentially a tropical species, and in the US it is typically found only in the far south and southeast. However, individuals regularly wander and turn up in odd places during migration—such as this one found at the Westborough WMA in Worcester County.

Purple gallinule at Westborough WMA © Justin Lawson

Purple gallinule at Westborough WMA © Justin Lawson

Bell’s Vireo (Vireo bellii)

Another southern species, the Bell’s vireo breeds in the central and western US and parts of Mexico, and winters in Mexico. A small, fairly plain-looking songbird, it has a remarkably loud song. Researchers at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences banded a Bell’s vireo last month. It was the third such occurrence since 2005.

Bell's vireo in Manomet © Lauren diBiccari, Manomet Staff

Bell’s vireo in Manomet © Lauren diBiccari, Manomet Staff

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus)

Native to the western US, the rufous hummingbird breeds as far north as Alaska. It is a speedy, vibrant species, and makes up for its small size with tenacity and aggression. The male’s throat is orange but the female only shows a spot of orange. Last month a rufous hummingbird was seen in Great Barrington. The Allen’s hummingbird, a very similar species, can be very hard to distinguish from the rufous. Fortunately, the bird in Great Barrington was an adult male with a distinctive, completely rufous-colored back.

Rufous hummingbird in Seattle (CC BY-NC 2.0) Minette Layne

Rufous hummingbird in Seattle (CC BY-NC 2.0) Minette Layne

Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya)

Last month we shared a report of a Say’s phoebe on Nantucket. In October, another individual was spotted in Eastham. This western flycatcher is at home on ranches, and in badlands, desert edges, and other open arid habitats. It breeds all the way to northern Alaska and winters in parts of the southwestern US and Mexico. Individuals sometimes wander East during fall migration, and when they do, they inevitably make an eastern birder’s day.

Say's phoebe in Eastham © Ben Lagasse

Say’s phoebe in Eastham © Ben Lagasse

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

This songbird is master traveler. It nests in Europe and Asia—with some birds entering North America in the high north from both the east and west—and winters in sub-Saharan Africa. Researchers have found that Alaskan northern wheatears travel an average of over 9000 miles to reach their wintering grounds! Stragglers sometimes find their way south to Massachusetts, where one was spotted at the Wachusett Reservoir in Worcester County last month.

Northern wheatear at Wachusett Reservoir © Justin Lawson

Northern wheatear at Wachusett Reservoir © Justin Lawson

Last Month in Birding: September 2015

Every month we feature five of the past month’s bird sightings as suggested by our experts. Here are a few remarkable observations from September.

White-faced Storm-petrel (Pelagodroma marina)

This small seabird bird often hovers low over the surface of the water, searching for food by gliding back and forth and bouncing along on its feet (see an amazing video). It nests on small islands in parts of the Atlantic, Indian, and South Pacific oceans, but otherwise spends all its time far out at sea. Several birds were seen at sea far off of Martha’s Vineyard this past month.

White-faced storm petrel © Lanny McDowell

White-faced storm-petrel off Martha’s Vineyard © Lanny McDowell

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

Here’s a truly odd sighting: a young brown pelican was found under a truck in Southboro. It was malnourished and unfortunately passed away at Tufts Wildlife Clinic. These birds are typically found farther south, and are very rarely seen so far inland; perhaps a storm or illness caused this individual to become disoriented. Though the pelican’s death is a sad event, its appearance is intriguing. Brown pelicans were once almost eliminated from North America due to the pesticide DDT. However, they’ve made an incredible comeback. They are still an unusual sight in Massachusetts, although they have become increasingly common in recent years as far north as New Jersey.

Juvenile brown pelican in Mexico

Juvenile brown pelican in Mexico (CC BY-SA 2.0) Kurt Bauschardt

Bell’s Vireo (Vireo bellii)

John James Audubon named the Bell’s vireo after the gifted taxidermist John Graham Bell who accompanied him on his trip up the Missouri River. In the US, this olive-gray songbird is typically found in the central and southeastern parts of the country. Interestingly, individuals tend to be more yellow in the eastern parts of the species’ range and grayer in the west. A bird observed and photographed in Newbury was one of very few records for Massachusetts.

Bell's vireo (CC BY 2.0) Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren

Bell’s vireo in MIssouri (CC BY 2.0) Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren

Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster)

Related to the northern gannet, this large bird is found in many tropical oceans where one of its preferred foods is flying fish. It currently does not breed on the US mainland. Nonetheless, there were several sightings off of Provincetown this late summer and right up through the month of September. Brown boobies have long, pointed beaks for capturing fish, and adults have bright yellow feet that play a key role in their their courtship display.

Brown booby off Provincetown © Steve Arena

Brown booby off Provincetown © Steve Arena

Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya)

The Say’s phoebe inhabits open, arid regions and is seldom found in deep forest. It is a true bird of the west, where it breeds all the way from Alaska south to the Mexican border. During fall migration, however, a few birds often go astray and wander east as far as Massachusetts. Last month an individual was spotted on the island of Nantucket.

Say's phoebe © Lee H. Dunn

Say’s phoebe on Nantucket © Lee H. Dunn

Last Month in Birding: July 2015

In July, Massachusetts birders enjoyed another month of unusual sightings. Here are five of the most exciting of these observations as suggested by our experts.

Bridled tern (Onychoprion anaethetus)

A bird of tropical and subtropical oceans, the bridled tern is similar in size to our common tern, but is stouter and has striking black and white facial markings. Outside of the breeding period it spends most of its time over the open ocean, hovering over the surface and dipping its beak into the water to snag fish and other small sea creatures. A bridled tern was sighted in Nantucket in July.

Bridled tern © Lee H. Dunn

Bridled tern in Nantucket © Lee H. Dunn

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

A ruff observed on Plum Island last month was a long way from home: the species is native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, breeding in the north and overwintering in the south. Though female and non-breeding male ruffs have an unremarkable appearance, during the breeding season the males display large feathery “ruffs” and battle vigorously for dominance on special display areas called leks. The species’ scientific name means “pugnacious lover of battle”.

Ruff © Steve Arena

Ruff at Plum Island © Steve Arena

White-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica)

This species looks somewhat like a mourning dove, but it has a chunkier body and a tail that is square rather than pointed. Though primarily a species of southern deserts, it is equally comfortable in suburban areas and frequently wanders quite far. Through the years its range has been gradually expanding northward; it often takes advantage of backyard feeders. One bird was briefly observed in Newburyport.

White-winged dove in Florida (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Kenneth Cole Schneider

White-winged dove in Florida (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Kenneth Cole Schneider

Fea’s petrel (Pterodroma feae)

This relatively rare seabird was named for Italian artist and zoologist Leonardo Fea, and its name is pronounced FAY-ah. It is a member of the tubenose order of birds (Procellariformes), and like other members of this group has the ability to excrete excess salt through tubes on its bill from special salt glands located above of its eyes. This petrel breeds on just a few islands in the Eastern Atlantic. When not nesting, it spends all of its time at sea. One bird was spotted over Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary—only the second record ever in Massachusetts and one of very few for North America!

Fea's Petrel © Steve Arena

Fea’s Petrel off Truro © Steve Arena

Sandwich tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis)

It’s easy to remember what a sandwich tern looks like: its beak has a yellow tip, which gives it the appearance of having been dipped in mustard. Juveniles may lack the yellow marking—perhaps they haven’t yet developed a taste for Dijon? The species is native to the southeastern US and the coasts of Central and South America. However, one wandered north to Nauset Marsh in Eastham this past month.

Sandwich Tern in Mexico  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  Sergey Yeliseev

Sandwich Tern in Mexico (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Sergey Yeliseev