New England: Fall 2020

Fall 2020: 1 Aug–30 Nov

Greg Hanisek

Recommended citation:

Hanisek, G. 2021 Fall 2020: New England. <> North American Birds.

In this region with a long history of significant sightings, fall is an especially rich time for the discovery of vagrants. This year the usual array of statelevel rarities took a back seat to two finds noteworthy in the context of the Lower 48a Gray Heron and a Common Cuckoo. The first performed for a lucky two observers; the latter drew admirers from far and wide and disappointed few of them. As usual, Massachusetts and Maine were especially rich in diversity. In the tally of species seen in only one of the region’s six states, MA had 12 and ME had nine.

An irruption of boreal species, this year primarily finches, always energizes New England’s birders. Its central location makes Massachusetts a good gauge of these movements, and Robert Stymeist noted that the quality of the irruption was apparent there by the end of September and the first week of October. Purple Finches and Pine Siskins poured in early, with large numbers apparent on the Massachusetts islands and diurnal watch points such as Lighthouse Point on the Connecticut coast. Eventually Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, both crossbills and some Pine Grosbeaks made it into the southern tier. A sprinkling of Hoary Redpolls were of special interest both for their rarity and their identification challenges.

Weather was equable overall, but August storms—most notably Hurricane Isaias in the first week—delivered pelagic species up the coast and primarily Sooty Terns far inland. Bluff Point in Groton, CT, a premier spot for passerine morning flights, recorded 1,200 warblers on 5 Sep.

Contributors: Louis Bevier, Rachel Farrell, Greg Hanisek, Neil Hayward, Doug Hitchcox, Marshall J. Iliff, Frank Mantlik, Steve Mirick, Ted Murin, John Oshlick, Wayne Petersen, Robert Stymeist, Jeremiah Trimble, Sean Williams, Keenan Yakola.

Abbreviations: Hammonasset (Hammonassett Beach State Park, Madison, New Haven Co, CT); Manomet (Manomet Center for Conservation Studies, Plymouth, Plymouth Co, MA.); Monhegan (Monhegan Island, Lincoln Co, ME); Nantucket (Nantucket Island, MA); Plum Island (Newburyport, Newbury, Rowley, Ipswich, including Parker River N.W.R., Essex Co, MA).

Waterfowl through Doves

The region’s lone Ross’s Goose was at the wellknown Snow Goose staging area at Dead Creek WMA, Addison Co, VT 128 Nov (Jim Mead et al. ph.). Two Pink-footed Geese, found 24 Nov in Simsbury, Hartford Co, CT were present into winter (Doug Beach ph., m.ob.). Singles were at McCuen Slang, Addison Co, VT on 30 Oct (David Hof), and from Wellfleet to Orleans, Barnstable Co, MA from 26 Nov into winter (ph. various obs.). The first Barnacle Goose of the season in the United States was a bird found on 12 Oct in the Northampton area, Hampshire Co, MA (Kevin Barnes, Sasha Auer ph.). It was part of a family group that included what have been assessed to be four Barnacle x Cackling Goose hybrid young. Apparently the same group, now with three young, was at Broad Brook Mill Pond in East Windsor, Tolland Co, CT on 20 Oct (Tim Coffey et al.).

Tundra Swans largely bypass the region to the west during migration, but an especially good flight produced reports from more than a dozen locations, including one as far northeast as Unity Pond, Waldo Co, ME on 15 Nov (Tom Avesa ph.), and a high of 12 on 28 Nov at Horseneck Beach, Bristol Co, MA (Joel and Matthew Eckerson ph.). A reliable male Eurasian Wigeon arrived at a pond in Norwalk, Fairfield Co, CT on 10 Oct for its third consecutive year (Tina Green et al. ph.); there were more than a dozen other reports of the species, all coastal except for a female in late November on Lake Champlain, Chittenden Co, VT (Jim Mead, Scott Morrical et al. ph.). A Common Goldeneye was unexpected inland 22 Aug on the Farmington River in Collinsville, Hartford Co, CT (Jamie Meyers).

The season’s two Eared Grebes were at Bantam Lake in Litchfield Co, CT on 30 Aug (GH et al.) and at Wellfleet Town Pier, Barnstable Co, MA on 24 Sep (Mike Jones). A Clark’s Grebe, the second for Maine and New England, was at Togus Pond, Augusta, Kennebec Co 815 Aug (Tom Renckens et al. ph.). Single White-winged Doves were reported on 31 Aug at Cuttyhunk Island, Dukes Co, MA (Alex Burdo et al. ph.); on 11 Oct at Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, New London, Co CT (Jerilyn Dufrene ph.); and 7–14 Nov at Concord, Merrimack Co, NH (Mark Suomala et al. ph.).

Cuckoos through Shorebirds

The most avian excitement, combining rarity with accessibility, centered on the Common Cuckoo found on 1 Nov at Snake Den Farm State Park in Johnston, Providence Co, RI (Allen Schenck et al. ph.). The bird, the third for the Lower 48 and second for the region, was seen by hundreds through 8 Nov. The previous New England record is from 34 May 1981 on Martha’s Vineyard, Dukes Co, MA. There were six reports of Rufous Hummingbirds: three from CT, two from MA, and one from ME. There were also single reports of Rufous/Allen’s from CT and VT. A surprisingly cooperative juvenile King Rail was easy to find in relatively dry habitat 1215 Oct at Allen’s Meadow in Wilton, Fairfield Co, CT (Emily Keating, David Woolery et al. ph.). Even more cooperative was a Yellow Rail that had been captured in the belief it was injured. Taken to the Connecticut Audubon Coastal Center at Milford Point, New Haven Co on 15 Oct, it hopped out of its container and for hours entertained a growing throng of admirers by darting under the building and out again, and eventually walking into the marsh of its own volition (Stefan Martin, m.ob. ph.).

Single American Avocets were reported from at least seven coastal locations from Milford, New Haven Co, CT to Thomaston, Knox Co, ME. The dates ranged from 14 Aug to 17 Nov (Ben Oko, LB et al.). Overlapping dates indicate that multiple individuals were involved. Seasonal highlights were Massachusetts’ fourth Pacific Golden-Plover on 26 Aug at Esther Island, Nantucket (Lee Dunn ph.) and Connecticut’s first on 2930 Oct at Sikorsky Airport, Stratford, Fairfield Co (FM ph. et al.). In nearly the same highlight category were single Common Ringed Plovers—one found on a survey 1519 Sep at Seal Island NWR, Knox Co, ME (KY et al. ph.), and one which if accepted would be a Connecticut first on 2 Oct at Hammonasset (Nick Bonomo). A breeding-plumage Curlew Sandpiper was at Scituate, Plymouth Co, MA 2–6 Aug (Thomas O’Brien et al. ph.). It was the only fall record for the East Coast in 2020. An inland Purple Sandpiper on 30 Oct at Holyoke Dam was a first record for Hampshire Co, MA (Ted Gilliland ph.). A Little Stint found in early July at Charlestown, Washington Co, RI was present to at least 9 Aug (Tim Metcalf, m.ob. ph.).

There were five reports of Wilson’s Phalaropes, all coastal, from late Aug to midSep, and all were singles except for two 1618 Aug at Plum Island (Steve Babbitt et al. ph.). Red-necked Phalaropes were widespread, both on the coast and inland, with high counts of 52 at Jeffery’s Ledge, Rockingham Co, NH on 25 Sep (Leo McKillop, Susan Wrisley ph.) and 40 on 8 Aug at Southport Beach, Fairfield Co, CT (Tina Green, Jory Teltser, Aidan Kiley). Away from typical coastal locations, single Red Phalaropes were found 17 Sep at Sebago Lake, Cumberland Co, ME (Bruce Small); 89 Oct at Shelburne Bay on Lake Champlain (Jim Osborn, Graham Rice ph.); and 2427 Oct at Cheshire Reservoir, Lanesborough, Berkshire Co, MA (Mary Boschetti et al. ph.). In Massachusetts, a fallout on 1112 Sep produced single Red Phalaropes at Quabbin Reservoir and Littleville Lake, both Hampshire Co., and up to two through 14 Sep at a marsh at October Mountain, Berkshire Co (var. obs. ph.).

Skuas through Tropicbirds

South Polar Skuas were at Matinicus Rock, Knox Co, ME on 3 and 16 Aug (Will Kennerly, Jesse Lewis ph.) and at Race Point, Provincetown, Barnstable Co, MA on 3 Oct (Peter Flood, Blair Nikula, Scott Surner ph.). A Long-tailed Jaeger was a significant rarity inside Long Island Sound on 25 Aug at Stratford Point, Fairfield Co, CT (FM ph.). Overlandmigrant juveniles dropped onto two small bodies of water in the north, on 8 Sep at Green River Reservoir, Hyde Park, Lamoille Co, VT (Shiela Gross ph.) and 10 Sep at Webb Lake, Weld, Franklin Co, ME (Scott Isherwood ph.). Both were described as tame and easily approached by watercraft. An Ancient Murrelet provided a seasonal highlight on 9 Nov at Race Point (Amy O’Neill et al. ph.). In the past decade this species was found in 2016, 2017, and 2018 near islands off the coast of ME, all in May–June.

A Lake Champlain watch on 31 Oct at Charlotte, Chittenden Co, VT yielded a first-year Black-legged Kittiwake (TM et al.). A firstsummer Sabine’s Gull made a difficult find easy when it stayed primarily at the ever-productive Race Point from its discovery in July well into November (m.ob. ph.). It was joined briefly by a juvenile in late August. More typical were oneday sightings on 29 Aug at Rye Harbor, Rockingham Co, NH (SM, Rebecca Suomala, Jim Sparrell) and 29 Sep at a salmon farm in Machias Bay, Washington Co, ME (Chris Bartlett). A Little Gull in alternate plumage drew attention on Lake Champlain 716 Aug at Charlotte (Jim Mead et al.). Of four Franklin’s Gulls found in the region, three were in MA, with reports from Rockport, Essex Co on 4 Aug (Davey Walters); Sandy Neck, Barnstable Co on 29 Aug (Peter Crosson); and 26 Oct in Northampton, Hampshire Co (Aaron Hulsey et al.). The fourth was in Lamoine, Hancock Co, ME on 5 Nov (Michael Good, Nathan Dubrow).

Hurricane Isaias delivered pelagic species inland on 4 Aug, most notably Sooty Terns. There were 34 at 10 locations in MA, including an impressive high of 18 at Pontoosuc Lake, Pittsfield, Berkshire Co, MA (Manuel Morales et al. ph.). Bantam Lake in Litchfield Co, CT hosted five (Fran Zygmont et al.). As usual, almost all of these quickly dispersed, but two lingered for 10 days at Wachusett Reservoir, Worcester Co, MA (SW et al. ph.). Their extensive coastal presence extended north to Rockingham Co, NH and Matinicus Rock, ME. The famously persistent Red-billed Tropicbird was present to at least 7 Aug at Seal Island, Knox Co, ME (KY et al.).

Loons through Falcons

Pacific Loon reports remain on the upswing as observers gain a better understanding of identification criteria. Nine for the season included seven in MA, including three at Provincetown (Peter Flood et al. ph.) and two on consecutive days (1213 Aug) at Rockport, Essex Co (Rick Heil ph.). Singles were in CT and RI. A major tubenose movement on 17 Aug at Race Point, Provincetown, produced 450 Sooty Shearwaters, 470 Great Shearwaters, and 195 Manx Shearwaters (Blair Nikula). A noteworthy displacement by Hurricane Isaias on 5 Aug was a single Wilson’s Storm-Petrel near the Quebec border at Lake Memphremagog, Derby, Orleans Co, VT (MJI ph.). The widespread upward trend for Brown Booby continues, although for this season it was limited to MA from 5 Aug to 22 Sep. There were two offshore of Nantucket (Laurie Dugan ph.), one from Rockport, Essex Co (Simon Perkins), and three from Cape Cod (Blair Nikula, Sean Williams et al. ph.). The only American White Pelicans were two on 31 Aug at Molly’s Falls Pond, Washington Co, VT (Suzanne Roberts ph.) and one 67 Nov at Charlestown, Washington Co, RI (Billy Weber et al. ph.).

A first for the Lower 48, a Gray Heron was found on 5 Sep at Tuckernuck Island, just off Nantucket, (Skyler Kardell ph.) and then relocated the next day at nearby Muskeget Island (Skyler Kardell, Tucker Taylor). Previous North American records are from Alaska and Canada. (Based on photos, a Gray Heron present 28 Jun to 22 Aug in Nova Scotia appears to be the same individual. A Gray Heron also was reported in Virginia in October.) A white-morph Great Blue Heron was found 27 Sep in Greenwich, Fairfield Co, CT (James Muchmore, m.ob. ph.). Its long stay ended when it was found dead on 20 Nov (Stefan Martin). The specimen is now at Yale University. The region’s only Little Egret continued to at least 9 Aug at Scarborough Marsh, Cumberland Co, ME (var. obs. ph.). Cattle Egrets were notably scarce with just two records: 16 Oct at Hadley, Hampshire Co, MA (Larry Therrien et al. ph.) and 1 Nov in Durham, Strafford Co, NH (Robbie Prieto ph.).

A Swallow-tailed Kite, first reported in July, was seen regularly through 16 Aug in and around Webster, Merrimack Co, NH (Susan Wrisley et al. ph.). Connecticut’s single pair of breeding Mississippi Kites fledged one chick on 12 Aug (Janet Holt ph.) and the birds were last seen on 30 Aug (Janet Holt). New Hampshire continued to monitor two nesting sites. The third Crested Caracara for Massachusetts was found 1213 Aug in Gloucester, Essex Co (Max Baber et al. ph.) and then relocated in Amesbury, Essex Co, where it was present 1517 Aug (Bobby Goetschkes et al. ph.). Northwest winds brought 868 raptors to Lighthouse Point Park, New Haven Co, CT on 8 Oct, highlighted by a falcon flight (American Kestrel 178, Merlin 71, Peregrine 7, unidentified 40) that continued until after 5:30 p.m. (Steve Mayo).

Flycatchers through Thrushes

The only Ash-throated Flycatcher—a species found annually in the region in late fall—was seen on 8 Nov at Salisbury Beach, Essex Co, MA (Suzanne Sullivan, John Keeley et al. ph.). A Pacific-slope Flycatcher, identified by vocalizations, was seen 2430 Nov and beyond at Lusitania Meadow, Middlesex Co, MA (Ben Shamgochian m.ob. ph.). It represents a second state record. Say’s Phoebes were present 23–24 Sep in New Gloucester, Cumberland Co, ME (Dave Fensore m.ob. ph.) and on 3 Oct at Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard, Dukes Co, MA (Maurice Gilmore ph.). There were 16 reports of Western Kingbird, ranging from 5 Sep through 18 Nov and representing all six states. Unique for the season was a Gray Kingbird on 12 Oct at Woodward Point Preserve at Brunswick, Cumberland Co, ME, a second state record (Gordon Smith ph.). Connecticut reported a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher 1720 Aug at Bargh Reservoir in Stamford, Fairfield Co (Patrick Dugan et al. ph.), and Massachusetts had one reported to the staff at Manomet on 7 Nov. (Tom White et al. ph.).

A Loggerhead Shrike—a species now very rare in New England—appeared 615 Nov at E. Bridgewater, Plymouth Co, MA (Brian Vigorito ph. m.ob.) and nowhere else in ether New England or the Middle Atlantic states. Connecticut’s fourth Bell’s Vireo was as cooperative as a secretive species can be, being seen almost daily from 22 Oct to 11 Nov at Silver Sands State Park in Milford, New Haven Co, CT (JO ph. m.ob.). One was also found on 3 Oct in Barnstable Co, MA (Peter Johnson-Staub ph.). High on the list of great discoveries was a Yellowgreen Vireo found on 3 Oct at Andrews Point, Rockport, Essex Co, MA (Brian Harris et al. ph.); a third state record, it was found again the next day. At least three Boreal Chickadees, marginally irruptive at best, made it to Franklin Co in northwest MA by the first week in November (James Smith ph., Tom Raymo). A very modest and concentrated flight of Cave Swallows produced counts of one or two on 1618 Nov at seven locations, all on the coasts of CT and RI. The only exception was one way Down East at Quoddy Head, Washington Co, ME on 14 Nov (Knute Hansen ph.).

A strong irruption of Red-breasted Nuthatches was noted south of breeding areas, with early records in Connecticut on 13 Aug in Easton, Fairfield Co (Jeremy Nance) and Windsor Locks, Hartford Co (Paul Desjardins). Over the next few days counts of 20 or more were noted at some nonbreeding sites.

One of the scarcer western vagrants, a Rock Wren was found on 27 Nov at Ogunquit, York Co, ME; this second state record continued well into winter (Diana Onacki et al. ph.). The season’s only Mountain Bluebird was at Race Point, Provincetown, Barnstable Co, MA on 5 Nov (Peter Trull ph.). The season’s only Townsend’s Solitaire was found on 28 Oct in Nottingham, Rockingham Co, NH (Robbie Prieto). Another regional one-off was a Varied Thrush documented 1516 Nov at a private residence in Bar Harbor, Hancock Co, ME (Nathan Dubrow et al. ph.). A Northern Wheatear was right in the historic arrival window 21–22 Sep at Plum Island, where it showed well (S. Larson et al. ph.). Others were at Concord, Merrimack Co, NH on 19 Sep (Rebecca Suomala et al. ph.); at South Freeport, Cumberland Co, ME on 9 Oct (DH ph.); and at Parson’s Beach, York Co, ME on 12 Oct (Magill Weber et al. ph.).

Longspurs through Icterids

Lapland Longspurs arrived early, with at least five September sightings in the southern tier. The earliest was 21 Sep at Hammonasset (Scott Whalen). A Chestnut-collared Longspur found 23 Oct at Hollis, Hillsborough Co, NH was seen by numerous birders the next day (Susan Wrisley et al. ph.); another was calling when flushed at First Encounter Beach, Barnstable Co, MA on 4 Nov (Jason Barcus ph.). In keeping with the eastward extension of their breeding range, Clay-colored Sparrows are now widespread in autumn. Lark Sparrows haven’t matched them, but the needle points up, with about two dozen reported. Maine’s second Brewer’s Sparrow, seen on 4 Sep by a single observer, was at Petit Manan NWR, Steuben, Washington Co (Jada Fitch ph.). A Golden-crowned Sparrow at Abbott, Piscataquis Co, ME was present 1922 Oct (Ellen Blanchard ph.). LeConte’s Sparrows were in Newtown, Fairfield Co, CT on 27 Sep (Patrick Dugan ph.) and at Pemaquid Point, Lincoln Co, ME on 12 Oct (Zeke Smith ph.).

A female Spotted Towhee, found 9 Nov at Allen’s Pond, Bristol Co, MA, was present in the area into December (Jonathan and Matt Eckerson et al. ph.). There were seven Yellow-headed Blackbirds for the season: three in MA, two in CT, and one each RI and ME, ranging from late August through November. The season’s only Western Meadowlark was found on 24 Oct on Cuttyhunk Island, Dukes Co, MA (SW, Tim Lenz et al. ph.). It appears to be the third fully documented state record, but, as in a number of eastern states, old sight and unrecorded vocal reports defy solid documentation. Four Bullock’s Orioles were present this season: two in MA and one each in CT and ME. Another Bay Stateonly bird was a female Brewer’s Blackbird found on 11 Oct near the Hadley/Amherst line, Hampshire Co (Scott Surner ph.). It was found in a cow pen with European Starlings, as good a place as any for this stealth rarity.

Wood Warblers through Buntings

Away from breeding areas in western VT, the only Golden-winged Warblers were at Natick, Middlesex Co, MA 3031 Aug (Jonathan Layman et al. ph.); at Greenwich Point, Fairfeld Co, CT on 31 Aug (Cynthia Ehlinger et al. ph.); and a very late one at Monhegan Island on 9 Nov (JT, Luke Seitz ph.). Monhegan also hosted the only MacGillivray’s Warbler on 17 Sep (Lukas Musher et al. ph.). Following good numbers in the spring, Cape May Warblers continued an upward trend tied to boreal Spruce Budworm outbreaks, with counts of 10 at Greenwich Audubon, Fairfield Co, CT (Ryan McLean) on 5 Sep and 14 in New Hartford, Litchfield Co, CT (Dave Rosgen). Two reports of Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler were on 4 Oct at Beaver Pond Recreation Area, Norfolk Co, MA (Peter Jacobson, Nathaniel Marchessault) and 8 Nov at Stratford Point, Fairfield Co, CT (Stefan Martin ph.). Single Black-throated Gray Warblers were at Plum Island on 15 Sep (Gillian Overholser ph.); on Monhegan Island on 17 Sep (Don Reimer et al. ph.); and at Biddeford Pool, York Co, ME on 21 Nov (Tara Yeackel ph.). After Connecticut finally logged its first Townsend’s Warbler in April, another was found on 26 Oct at Nathan Hale Park, New Haven, CT (JO ph. et al.). Others were at Winchester, Middlesex Co, MA on 9 Sep (Jason Forbes et al. ph.); at Scussett Beach State Reservation, Barnstable Co, MA on 27 Oct (anonymous photos on eBird); and at Mass Audubon, Middlesex Co, MA, also on 27 Oct (Will Kostick ph.).

After Summer Tanagers flooded the region during spring migration, a modest eight were reported, six in MA and two in CT; they ranged from 31 Aug to 15 Nov. The season’s lone Western Tanager was found at a feeder in Orleans, Barnstable Co, MA on 28 Nov and stayed into winter (Alex Burdo ph.). A Black-headed Grosbeak, found on private property in early October, was seen by many through at least 19 Oct in Deerfield, Rockinghan Co, NH (SM ph. et al.); an immature male was seen 9 Sep to 1 Oct at St. George, Knox Co, ME (Donald Frederick). Three Painted Buntings for the season, all at feeders, were present on 11 Oct in Branford, New Haven Co, CT (Eileen Becker-Dunn ph.); 1317 Oct in Plymouth Co, MA (Anna Hughes ph.); and 26 Oct in East Falmouth, Barnstable Co, MA (another anonymous photo, posted to eBird via the Cape Bird Sightings email run by Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary).

Report processed by Joshua Malbin, 15 Mar 2021.

Photos–New England: Fall 2020

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