Tag Archives: last month in birding

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