Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Two Cool Birds I Saw

Dear Bird Folks,

We have several active birdfeeders in our yard and now we are thinking about putting up some birdhouses as well. Do you have any advice about doing that?

– Tom, Harwich, MA


Yes I do, Tom,

I have all kinds of advice about birdhouses and I’ll be happy to share it with you…next week. You see, I saw two cool birds today and I’m too excited about them to discuss birdhouses right now. Sorry to put you on hold, but one of these birds I’ve been looking for all winter and the other I’ve been searching for all my life. And today I saw both birds within a few hours of each other. As a result, I can’t focus on birdhouses right now, but I promise I will next week…just remind me. Last fall, I discussed the possibility of seeing rare (around here) northern finches. When it comes to seeing these finches, some winters are better than others and this one turned out to be pretty darn good. For the first time in a long time many local folks saw Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins. With a little luck and a lot of hiking, I too was able to find all three of those species. There was also a fourth rarity people were seeing, but not me. I kept missing it, but I also kept trying. However, time was running out. Soon these birds would be heading back to Canada and likely won’t wander this way again for many years. The pressure was on.

Many of the best birding spots have become crowded this year, so today I decided to try my luck along an old dirt road in Wellfleet. I had hiked about four miles when I came to a swampy area. Thinking there might be something cool hiding in the reeds, I started making those weird noises birders make in hopes of drawing out a rarity. But the only bird brave enough to see what I was doing was a Song Sparrow. Song Sparrows are sweet birds, but I had already seen plenty of them that day. Then, from a nearby stand of trees, came the sound of “jip, jip, jip.” Bingo! It was species number four, a flock of Red Crossbills, and they weren’t happy. Whatever I was saying to the Song Sparrow must have been upsetting to them as they arrived in full scold-mode. They sat on a branch and actually seemed to be cursing at me, but I didn’t care. I was thrilled to see them. Besides, I’m used to being cursed at.

As their name suggests, Red Crossbills really do have crossed bills. Their bills look like our fingers when we cross them for luck or the legs of a little kid who drank too much water on a long car ride. Their beaks may be odd, but they are perfectly designed for opening and removing seeds from pinecones. Crossbills spend most of their lives in Canada or in the conifer forests of our western states and it’s been years since they have visited Cape Cod, and I almost missed seeing them this time. Luckily, I found that flock in Wellfleet today or rather they found me, but it still counts. I took a few photos and left, but my birding day wasn’t over. Next I headed to Chatham Airport, which isn’t really a birding hot spot (or so I thought).

With a worldwide population of 140 million birds, Lapland Longspurs could hardly be called rare, but they are to me. On January 1, 2018, I announced, to no one in particular, that my New Year’s resolution was to finally see a Lapland Longspur. Common on the northern tundra in the summer and on farms and grasslands in the winter, longspurs don’t love Cape Cod the same way the rest of us do. Only a handful of them stop by each winter and those few birds gravitate to remote dunes. This is where I spent much of my time during the winters of 2018 and 2019 and 2020, and the only thing I had to show for my effort was frostbite. Then last week I got a tip that a few longspurs were being seen at the airport in Chatham. To me this was ridiculous. I mean, birds can fly on their own, why would they ever put up with the aggravation of an airport? In spite of my skepticism, I decided to have a look. When I arrived other birders were already there, lined up and looking through a chain link fence. There, on a strip of grass between the runways and the Piper Cubs, were hundreds of Horned Larks, dozens of Snow Buntings and a several Killdeer. That’s pretty good. It looks like I shortchanged Chatham Airport. A longspur was apparently there as well, but I couldn’t tell. The lighting was bad and I honestly wasn’t sure if I was seeing a bird or a clump of dead grass. I eventually gave up and went home, figuring I would return on a better day. That day was today.

Longspurs, named for their peculiar extra-long back claw, superficially resemble sparrows and much like sparrows they spend most of their lives on the ground searching for seeds. In the winter they look like nothing special, but in the breeding season the males, with their black throats and chestnut napes, are striking. This is a bird worth seeing.

When I arrived at the airport the second time there were no other birders and I was worried that the birds had moved on as well. I stepped out of my car, flipped up my binoculars and immediately saw a huge flock of Horned Larks, and right out in front of the flock was my very first Lapland Longspur, and it was a stunning male. Sweet! What a great day, and the best part was yet to come. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my wife the big news, and watch her pretend to be interested. But I know you’re interested right, Tom? Okay, maybe not, but either way, I will totally talk about birdhouses next week…unless something else rare pops up. We’ll see.