Posted May 30, 2020
Written by Mike Perrin
In recent blog posts and videos, I have discussed migration and the wonderful warblers that come with it. Migration also brings another element to birding in May: rarities. Rarities are birds that are unexpected in a certain area due to range or habitat limitations or birds that are rare due to a small population size. There are forums– namely eBird Rarity Report and various MA Facebook groups– that birders use to report rare birds. Their intentions are typically to document an unusual ecological phenomenon and/or allow other birders in the community to see these possible once-in-a-lifetime birds. Many birders pursue rare bird sightings in order to observe something totally out of the ordinary or to add a tick to your state list (translation: add a new bird to your list of birds seen/heard in the state – this can be worn as a badge of honor, used in competition, or used in ornithological records). This blog will cover a day spent birding, or rather chasing rarities, and will give the reader a look into the culture and hobby of birding. Although these birds were not seen in Wareham, they were within 30 minutes of Wareham, proving to be typical of my 30 minute driving radius for rarity chases.
On the morning of May 19th, I arose at 5:30am to search for a bird, the Least Bittern, reported on eBird at a Bristol County birding hotspot, Egypt Lanes, which houses phragmites, cattails, and other tall aquatic vegetation. Known for being illusive, the Least Bittern held up to its fame. These birds are skulky herons with white, beige, and dark colors, creating great camouflage while in reeds. The bird was reported two days prior, and I had gone searching two times before this trip. As I sipped my coffee and headed to the spot, I hoped I would finally catch a glimpse.
I arrived at the spot and climbed onto the dike, the location where other birders had seen the bird from, and set up my spotting scope. A spotting scope is easiest explained as a birding telescope used to scope birds from ranges beyond binocular capacity. From talking with other birders, I knew exactly the spot where the bird would be: find the gray stick hidden in the reeds and scan in that area. I located the stick, but no bird. This bird is most active in the morning and is best seen traveling between patches of vegetation or poking its head out from reeds; there is definitely an element of luck. After 20 minutes of scanning, still no bird. 30 minutes, no bird. A Clapper Rail sang out from the sea side of the dike, which is always a happy sound. These birds are rare in most parts of Massachusetts, including Bristol County, but a few of these birds have been breeding at Egypt Lane for years, making it rare but expected. One hour, still no bird. I start to get discouraged and look at the other birds around the area. Willow Flycatcher, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and baby Mute Swans occupied my lenses (Fun fact: baby swans are called cygnets). One and a half hours, still no bird. At hour two of scanning I accept defeat. I “dipped,” or left without seeing the bird, for the third time. Dipping is always hard, but a common and lesson-bearing aspect of birding. [Insert swear-word here].
Driving back to my house, I made more coffee and began my work from home. While working, I got the notice that another rarity, a Prothonotary Warbler, was spotted in Falmouth. Reluctantly, I continued with work, trying to ignore the flood of emails from the forums letting me know about all the other birders who went to see it. I successfully chased this bird last summer in Norfolk County, but it would be a great year bird and county bird. Around noon, another rarity report came in, this time in Bristol County. A very talented and equally as kind birder reported a Little Blue Heron at Winnegansett Marsh in Fairhaven. I had dipped on this bird in Harwich the week prior, so I jumped on the opportunity to go spot it. After completing the timely work, I geared up to go and I decided I would turn this into a chase day and go for the Prothonotary Warbler, too. I hoped my luck would change.
The Little Blue Heron is rare in Massachusetts but is considered a scarce breeder especially fond of Barnstable County. As the name suggests, it is a small heron with varying shades of blue and purple. I have seen this bird two other times, both on the Cape. As a new resident to the South Coast, I was hoping to see one in Bristol County. As I arrived at Winnegansett Ave, another car in front of me was going very slowly. We both approached the section of street that separates two marshes, one in which the Little Blue Heron was seen. I saw a pair of binoculars rise to the face of the passenger in the car in front of me, a sight I was awaiting. We both pulled over to the side of the road and acknowledged each other from a distance. After scanning for a minute, the couple left to check the nearby beach, but left me their number in case I spotted the bird. I scanned through many white egrets, both the taller Great Egret and Snowy Egret, but no Little Blue out in the open. A mixed flock of roughly 15 egrets sat in the reeds along the marsh. I scanned across them with the scope, and sure enough, I saw a glimpse of blue in the reeds! A dark, shadow-like figure could be seen making small movements. The glimmer from the shiny bill exposed this rarity. My luck had changed and I had found the Little Blue Heron. I called the other birders and helped them get looks at the bird as well. With a bit of adrenaline from this successful chase, I made my way to the Cape.
Lucky for me, a good friend and birder in Falmouth had been one of the nearly twenty other birds who chased, seen, and reported the Prothonotary Warbler. He provided the location of an alternative parking spot right next to where he saw the bird. The warbler was reported at Santuit Pond, a spot I have birded many times before. As soon as I pulled into the small parking spot, before I exited my car, I heard the echoing song of the warbler: “sweet, sweet, SWEET!” For the next ten minutes, I watched this rare warbler bounce between branches and canopies, eating caterpillars, inchworms, and singing its loud song. This is an unusually large warbler with all yellow underparts, olive green back, and grayish wings. Its normal range is much farther south, with breeding south of New Jersey. As a county bird and year bird, I was very pleased to see this feathered friend.
At the end of the chase day, I was successful with two out of three species, including one Bristol County bird, one Barnstable County bird, and two state birds, totaling my Massachusetts year count to 220 species seen/heard. As demonstrated by the rarity chases today, chasing can feel like a treasure hunt or total crapshoot. Like the Least Bittern and the gray stick at Egypt Lane, it is wildly fun to run around the woods looking for landmarks to lead you to your treasure. It is sometimes nice to pull up to the rarity, like the Prothonotary Warbler, instead of searching in the wrong spot. A parting look into birding culture: a nemesis bird is one that drives a birder crazy while they search for it. The Least Bittern has become a personal 2020 nemesis bird, and I am sure it will not be my last! You can view my checklists from the day to see photos and other birders observed below.
A copy of my MA Life List: Mike Perrin ebird_US-MA_life_list