Guest Editorial By Sally Chisholm
Nearly one year ago, on May 16, several events came together to create a major coastal spectacle along the New England coast. To help us understand, this is what happened leading up to that day:
Typically, birds start their migration north in mid-spring in search of food and nesting grounds. The spring of 2020 was wet, with northerly winds causing migratory birds to stall and stack up for more than 10 days further south. On May 14, the temperature and southeast winds became favorable, encouraging a huge movement of birds in a northerly direction, some successfully arriving into New England while others were caught up by southeasterly tailwinds carrying them further east then normal.
Combined with dense clouds, the birds’ ability to avoid water was limited, causing many to drift off shore. By late night into the early morning, a line of strong thunderstorms moved in, forcing birds over land to ground and the unfortunate over water flying until dawn when they could work their way back to the closest land. This type of event is called a coastal migratory fallout where huge numbers of birds are grounded along the coast in need of refuge and food.
Some of the greatest birders know how to read the radar migratory maps (BirdCast), along with weather reports, to predict the right place to be at the right time. On May 16 that place was Provincetown, where thousands of warblers and other species came down into forests, shrubs, and onto the ground. To give you an idea of the magnitude, one person in a single location over three hours reported 4,880 warblers representing 25 different species. Hull has geography similar to Provincetown and got a piece of this action that day.
Coincidently, Massachusetts Audubon’s annual Bird-a-thon fell on the same day. This is a fundraiser where teams of people head out to find and record as many species as possible. Amid the pandemic, Audubon went “green” by asking people to bird their neighborhood patch on foot, bicycle, or kayak.
My typical neighborhood walk in Hull might include Hull Gut, up to the top of Fort Revere, down through the cemetery, and up and down the streets of Hull Hill. This is the only area I covered that day, logging 9 miles from dawn to dusk. It was immediately clear something very different had happened overnight. The trees, shrubs, and ground were alive with birds, with many species I have never recorded in town before, including a saltmarsh sparrow, a life bird for me. On Andrew Avenue, there was a pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks, a Baltimore oriole, and least flycatcher all in one tree. Turning 180 degrees across the street produced four different species of warblers in another yard. Along the seawall behind the Dust Bowl, a bird dove across my path, landing in the grass feet away, a black-throated blue warbler just making landfall. I saw 65 different species of birds that day, 14 warblers including my favorite, a Blackburnian warbler. A typical walk might tally 20 to 30 species.
With memories of this day still lingering and the anticipation of another migratory season already happening, I have concerns when I see the loss of habitat like the recent clearing of Fort Revere. I don’t want to dwell on it but instead strive to help educate people as to why this is the wrong time of year to radically alter habitat that birds are expecting to find after a long, hard journey. We have lost more than 29 percent of the total bird population in North America since 1970, with some species like the chimney swift in a more rapid decline of 72 percent. Long distance migratory shorebirds and other species are at 70 percent.
The hills of Hull Village are an especially important area that migrating birds depend on as the closest land when pushed out to sea. Understanding migratory behavior can help us make better decisions to mitigate hardship and death to birds. Over the next two weeks, a large group of colorful little birds will pass through our town to rest and find food before continuing on. Hull is a beautiful, unique place to live where wonderful things happen if you look around, watch, listen, and appreciate.
Sally Chisholm is???