Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Vagrant Birds Add Excitement to Fall Birding 
November 07, 2015
By Steve Grinley

     Late fall is one of the more unpredictable times of the year for birding. It is a time when unusual birds from other parts of the country, particular birds from the west or southwest, find their way to eastern Massachusetts. A couple of weeks ago, a western kingbird was found on Plum Island and it spent more than a week perching atop bare branches just south of Lot 7 on the refuge. 

     This striking bird had a bright yellow front, much brighter than many that I have seen in Massachusetts. It was cooperative for most who wanted to see it or photograph it, except on a few windy days when it hunkered down somewhere out of sight. 

     The resident Lot 7 mockingbird didn’t like sharing his territory, chasing the kingbird from time to time just to let him know who was boss. Still the wayward bird remained longer than many vagrants, which often stay only a day or two. There have been several other western kingbirds showing up in Eastern Massachusetts in the past weeks, including two at the Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield. 

     Last weekend, we went to Millennium Park in West Roxbury to see a red-headed woodpecker that was found there. This was an immature bird so it didn’t have a bright red head, but it was nice to see just the same. There have been as many as four red-headed woodpeckers, presumably a family, at the Fannie Stebbins Wildlife Sanctuary in Longmeadow, south of Springfield. That would be a long way to drive, so It was nice to the one closer in West Roxbury. 

     The red-headed woodpecker is another southern bird which is expanding its range northward, much like its cousin the red-bellied woodpecker. There seem to be more reports of red-headed woodpecker each year. There have been breeding records in this state as well. Perhaps it won’t be long before this bird shows up at area feeders!

     Also at Millennium Park was a dickcissel hanging out with a small number of house sparrows in the upper parking lot. This bird looks like a sparrow, but it has a flat head, varying amounts of yellow on the breast (males are brighter) and chestnut on the wing. This is a bird of the Midwest, found in fields and agricultural areas. In recent years, this bird been seen or heard more regularly here in Massachusetts, especially in the fall, but also at other times of the year.

     Despite what you think of having so many house sparrows at your feeders, it is always good to take a closer look for anything different that might be with them. A dickcissel may be with them, but so might a clay-colored or Harris’ sparrow. We have had dickcissels and clay-colored sparrows several times over the years at our store feeders, so it is worth the look (and worth putting up with the gregarious house sparrows!)

     Another vagrant from the Midwest, a Bell’s vireo, has thrilled Cape Cod birders for more than a week now. This elusive vireo of brushy edges is often heard more easily than seen. But many patient birders have caught glimpses of this bird and a few even got photos. 

     We saw a Bell’s vireo locally more than a month ago when Suzanne Sullivan found one on Kent’s Island in Newbury. With excellent directions, we were able to relocate this bird and we had good looks at it as well.

     Other vagrants like Say’s phoebe, ash-throated flycatcher, cave swallow, Townsend’s solitare or a Macgillivray’s warbler are sometimes found during fall birding excursions. These rarities add to the excitement of birding this time of year. We have learned to expect the unexpected in the fall.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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