The soft fragrance of elderberry blooming 

May 22, 2024

By Stéphane Menu

There is a patch of elderberry near a net (A5, to be precise), which also borders the road/driveway, meaning that we walk by it every time we do a net round. Every 30 minutes, we pass the subtle smell of these purple flowers. It is another marker of the passage of time at Cabot Head, a flowery sign that we are now into the last few weeks of Spring monitoring for another year (June 10th being the last day). 

The season will soon come to an end but migration is still going strong: the last week saw new arrivals, surprise birds, and big banding days. On May 16, it was the FOY Olive-sided Flycatcher, offering surprisingly good views of a bird more often heard than seen. Two Olive-sided Flycatchers were also seen (together!) on May 21 in fog and rain. A bird of the boreal forest and the western mountains, it is rather uncommon at Cabot Head, detected one to three times a season and missed altogether in six Spring seasons. On May 16, we also enjoyed the spectacular Red-headed Woodpecker. It was also a busy day at the nets, with a total of 66 birds of 17 species banded.

A South wind under an overcast sky was blowing at dawn on May 17, not quite strong enough to prevent us from opening all the nets at 5:30am, but its gathering speed in early morning forced many nets to be closed (for bird safety). In the early rounds, we caught a remarkable 18 Swainson’s Thrushes (almost half of the day’s total of 40 birds). In the past 22 Spring seasons, there were 222 days with banding of Swainson’s Thrush and only six had double-digit totals, from 12 to 26 birds. May 17 was also the first day of capture for a Swainson’s Thrush, a rather late date compared with previous seasons.

May 18 was clear and calm, both in the sky and in the nets, with only 17 birds of eight species banded and no particular observations to report. A furious South wind was blowing again on May 19, so strong and persistent that no banding was possible. The census, however, yielded Semipalmated Plovers, which are rarely seen at Cabot Head like most shorebirds due to a lack of habitat for them (the exception being Spotted Sandpiper and Killdeer, as well as the Yellowlegs – the Greater, the Lesser, the More than Great and the Very Least, though the last two are mostly only rumoured to exist – see “A Field Guide to Little Known and Rarely Seen Birds of North America”;

Calm and clear conditions returned on May 20, allowing all nets to be open once again. Dawn and early morning were on the cool side with very little bird activity. But, boy oh boy, did that change when warmth seeped in later: birds descended from the sky, filling trees and nets alike. In the end, 110 birds of 25 species got banded, the second highest total of the Spring, including 32 American Redstarts, keeping their uncontested place as the most common bird at Cabot Head (once the kinglets have moved on). Incredibly, we captured a Connecticut Warbler, the second ever in the Spring (one on June 4, 2006; and four banded in the Fall seasons of 2003, 2005, 2020, & 2022). A total of 15 other species of warblers were banded that day, with 15 Magnolia and nine Blackburnian Warblers being the most common after the Redstarts. All in all, a mind-boggling 23 species of warblers were detected, including a singing Blue-winged Warbler on census. 

After such an epic day, the morning rain on May 21 gave the team a chance to catch up on sleep a little. Heavy fog created a fun moody ambience but made birds hard to see. It might also have confused the little chittering flock of 34 Dunlins that flew in circles around the basin for a few minutes before disappearing. As mentioned, shorebirds are not common at Cabot Head and Dunlins are no exception: seen only in the Springs of 2008 and 2018 previously (and once in Fall 2002). Through the rain, we observed fast moving little flocks of songbirds, mostly warblers (notably Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, and Cape May Warblers). When the rain tapered off in mid-morning, we quickly opened the nets for two hours, catching and banding 35 birds of 17 species (including 12 American Redstarts), another indication that quite a few birds were around despite the weather conditions. In the end, 20 species of warblers were detected that day.

On May 22, the increasing South wind brought summer-like conditions to Cabot Head. Before the wind turned into another fury, we managed to do some banding (38 birds of 15 species, including the FOY Traill’s Flycatcher. Don’t look in your bird guide, even in the aforementioned one: Willow and Alder Flycatchers being undistinguishable in hand – and in the field except through their calls – they are combined as Traill’s Flycatcher); by the end of the morning though, only four nets were still open and very little bird activity could be seen… except in the sky, where gulls and raptors were enjoying the easy lift. Among them was a very late Rough-legged Hawk (light form), possibly the same bird seen – sparingly – throughout the Spring. There have been six observations after May 22 in the previous years, with the latest on June 10, 2005. 

Who knows what the South wind will bring us in the days to come? There are still birds migrating, with a few species not yet arrived on our shores (Gray-cheeked Thrush, I’m talking to you…).