Bird Watcher's General Store

A Gray Kingbird on Cape Cod
11/11/16


Dear Bird Folks,

I read on Mass Audubon’s weekly wildlife sightings that a Gray Kingbird is being seen in Hyannis, which I believe is a rare bird for Cape Cod. Do you know exactly where it was spotted and if it is still being seen?

-Taylor, Yarmouth, MA

Thanks, Taylor,

I appreciate the question, but this is not the best place to learn about current bird sightings. Unfortunately, it takes me a few days to write an answer to each question and thus things aren’t posted in real time as they are on Facebook or Twitter. Next, I send the column to my editing guru, Olivia, who fixes the mistakes (and removes all the bad words). The whole process takes time. Asking me a question is like ordering a new T-shirt online, but then having it sent via parcel post. You are going to get what you ask for, but it may be out of style by the time it arrives.

Regardless of when you read this information, the sighting of a Gray Kingbird in Hyannis is a big deal. This bird has never been seen on Cape Cod before…ever. And this is only the fifth time (I believe) that a Gray Kingbird has been seen in the Commonwealth. The last report (I heard about) was written by the late birding legend, Vernon Laux. Back in the fall of 2006, Vern wrote that a Gray Kingbird was found on Martha’s Vineyard. However, that bird apparently never crossed onto the Cape and was last seen stuck in line at Mad Martha’s, trying to get a dish of mocha chip ice cream.

It’s important to note that Gray Kingbirds aren’t rare birds. In fact, they are doing quite well. What makes this sighting so unusual is that this particular bird is 1,700 miles away from home. Gray Kingbirds are normally found in the Caribbean, with some breeding along Florida’s coast in the summer. As the name suggests, the Gray Kingbird is mostly gray and from a distance could be confused with a Northern Mockingbird; it also behaves like a mockingbird, often attacking anything it doesn’t like, including large hawks and family pets. Surprisingly, Gray Kingbirds aren’t skittish and are tolerant of humans (except humans who look like their pets).

When I first read about this visiting kingbird I was away and could only follow the story from a distance. It seems that on Sunday, October 23rd, one lonely birder (Carol) posted the sighting on eBird and that was it for the day. However, the next day, October 24th, forty-five birders magically appeared at the location and also reported seeing the same kingbird. This begs the question: Since it was Monday, shouldn’t most of these people have been at work (or at least on vacation, like me)? Did I see this bird? Not right away. What I enjoy most about bird watching is that it can be so serendipitous. I just never know what I might discover. Knowing that a certain bird is going to be at a particular location is like watching a mystery movie after already being told the ending. Some of the fun is gone. But then again, if I was ever going to see a Gray Kingbird, this was my chance. I’m certainly not going to the Caribbean or Florida in the summer. So, I went for it.

The kingbird has been hanging out on Ocean Ave., near Keyes Memorial Beach in Hyannis (or Hyannis Port, I’m never sure where they draw the line). I parked at the beach and was immediately met by a couple from Rhode Island. In their desire to see this kingbird, they had driven across state lines. (Is that even legal?) We turned left out of the parking lot and followed a walkway for a short distance until we saw Stephanie, from the Cape Cod Bird Club. Stephanie was on the other side of the street and was getting ready to snap a photo when I decided to cross over to have a better look. But like a klutz I tripped over the guardrail, causing the bird to take off. If Stephanie, or the RI people were upset with me, they didn’t show it. We simply followed the bird to a nearby bush, where it ate several berries before flying down and scooping up a cricket for dessert. Gray Kingbirds have thick, heavy-duty beaks, which they use to crack open the tough exoskeletons of beetles and crickets. The birds also eat lots of bees, including wasps (which I’m sure are everywhere in Hyannis Port).

The sighting of a rare bird can be a bittersweet event for birders. While birders are excited to see a bird that they might not ordinarily have an opportunity to see, they (at least some of them) feel bad for the bird. Often visits from lost birds don’t have happy endings. It seems unlikely that this kingbird will wake up one morning, realize where it went wrong and catch the next southerly wind to the Caribbean. This brings us to the irony of the story. Remember the “berries” the bird was eating before it found the cricket? Those berries were…wait for it…bittersweet berries. Get it? Okay, maybe I’m just being too metaphysical.

Will the Gray Kingbird still be around by the time you read this column, Taylor? My answer is a definite, maybe. The best place to find more current information is on eBird (ebird.org). But be forewarned, eBird posts also attract lots of birders and it’s best to avoid those people. Sooner or later, one of them will trip over a guardrail and scare away the bird. I hate when that happens.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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