As any local birdwatcher will tell you, the fall is the most rewarding time for birdwatching in Bermuda, thanks to cold fronts, storms, and sometimes hurricanes which cause birds to veer off from their southward migration and drop into Bermuda for rest and recovery. This year has proved to be no exception, with some vagrants and migrants arriving earlier than usual thanks to back-to-back Atlantic hurricanes. Hurricanes Franklin and Idalia, spawned in late August, and Hurricane Lee forming in September did miss us, but brought tropical storm winds to Bermuda and in their wake, feathered accidental tourists. It’s important to note that many birds change their plumage according to the season, so that some arriving here are in the process of moulting their breeding plumage for their winter feathers and may have a pied appearance. Females tend to be duller in appearance. Here is a selection of birds sighted by Dr Miguel Mejias and Andrea Ottley in August and September.
The American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)
In early September, Bermudian ornithologist Dr Miguel Mejías posted on Facebook stunning photos he had taken of two adult male American redstarts in Bermuda. As he explained, while they are common migrants here, only two percent of visitors are adult males “sporting this hot, charcoal attire; dully coloured, immature redstarts are the norm… Miraculously, I was lucky to encounter THREE adult redstarts across two days. Before this, I had only ever seen two adults in Bermuda, across over 10 years of birding…” The adult males have orange red and yellow patches. They winter in Central America, the West Indies and northern South America.
Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea)
This beautiful yellow bird breeds in eastern North America. It winters in Central America, the West Indies and northern South America, primarily in mangrove swamps. So it’s not so surprising Dr Miguel Mejías saw one “playing peek-a-boo in the mangroves, a habitat that’s crucial for migrant warblers in Bermuda during the fall migration.” As he explained on Facebook, “their name comes from the bright yellow robes worn by papal clerks, called prothonotaries, in the Roman Catholic Church.” Citrea is from the Latin for citrine or yellow.
Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)
A small passerine (perching) bird and a member of the flycatcher family, the northern wheatear is only an occasional visitor to Bermuda in the fall months. However, thanks perhaps to Hurricane Franklin, a female wheatear was sighted by Andrea Ottley in August this year on the Port Royal Golf Course. As a matter of fact, Major J.W. Wedderburn describes in The Naturalist by John Matthew Jones one Lieutenant Wood of the 42nd Royal Highlanders Regiment shooting a wheatear near Gibbs Hill Lighthouse on October 18, 1846, not long after the lighthouse shone its first light in May of the same year. Fortunately, the days of shooting birds for identification purposes are long gone. In 2023, Dr Mejias saw a wheatear eating caterpillars on one of the greens. The wheatear is remarkable for its winter migration from Canada’s Arctic breeding to the UK and then to its wintering grounds in Africa. The female’s appearance, with brown upperparts, white belly, rusty throat and breast, is similar to that of a male during this time of year though the male has black wings. Its English name is unrelated to wheat but derives from “white-arse,” which refers to its white rump.
Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus)
This North American flycatcher’s Latin name “king of kings” is appropriate since it is aggressive towards other birds invading its territory. Adults have grey-black upperparts with light grey and white underparts, long black tails with white tips, and black head and cheeks. An occasional vagrant to Bermuda, four were seen this August by Andrea Ottley in the military cemetery near Dockyard. These birds winter in Central and South America.
Gray Kingbird (Tyrannus dominicensis)
Also in the flycatcher family and known as the pitirre, petchary or white-breasted kingbird, this is an even rarer visitor to Bermuda than the eastern kingbird. It is similar in appearance but has a grey mask and a pale yellow belly. Its Latin name gives the clue; it was first described in Hispaniola, originally called San Domingo. Many breed in Florida and nest in mangroves, which may explain why Andrea Ottley sighted one last August in Lagoon Park Lodge Point, Sandys. It winters on Central America’s Caribbean coast and northern South America.
Black Tern (Chlidonias niger)
This is a small tern with an elegant, short notched grey tail and as its species name niger (meaning “shining black”) suggests, when breeding has predominantly dark plumage. Its genus name comes from the Greek khelidonios, meaning “swallow like.” It has dark red legs and feet and a black beak. In late summer, its head and underparts start to turn white for its winter plumage, giving it a pied appearance. The North America black tern migrates to South America in winter. It likes inland water so it’s no wonder Andrea Ottley saw one on Harrington Sound in August. Unlike other terns, it doesn’t dive for fish but forages for fish and insects on the wing.
Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis)
In his Birdwatching Guide to Bermuda, Andrew Dobson says the sandwich tern is mostly seen here late spring to early summer. Perhaps the tropical winds from Hurricanes Franklin and Idalia brought one later this year—in Harrington Sound. With grey upperparts and white underparts, it has a black bill tipped with yellow and a deeply forked tail most visible when it dives for fish.
Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)
While barn swallows regularly visit Bermuda, tree swallows are more unpredictable visitors while on their winter migration to Florida, the Gulf Coast, the West Indies, Panama and the northwestern South American coast. However, in August, Andrea Ottley sighted a “very friendly” tree swallow on Port Royal Golf Course. With white breast, blue-green upperparts, dark wings and slightly notched tail, the tree swallow has a black beak and pale brown legs and feet. It breeds in Canada and the US.