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Stormy Weather Brings a Windfall of Sightings for Bird Watchers

Mick Thompson / flickr / bit.ly/2VPW2MT

After wearing out its welcome over several days, last week’s never-ending Nor’easter finally passed, leaving a handful of smiling birders in its wake. Why are they smiling? Are they storm-damage sadists who are really into coastal erosion? Maybe, but many birders welcome a good Nor’easter, or, as you weather nerds may call them, macro-scale extratropical cyclones. That’s because these storms often come bearing gifts. The initial strong northeast winds can load up Cape Cod Bay with all manner of offshore birds from the Gulf of Maine, many blown inshore against their will.

Typically a storm like this passes more quickly, offering a clear strategy for birders – head to Sandy Neck in Barnstable while the winds are  northeast, then get yourself to First Encounter in Eastham once the storm is past us and the winds swing around to the northwest. At this point in the storm, birds trying to exit the bay are pushed close to shore in Eastham.

Because of how long it stayed, this particular storm was hard for birders to figure. A few wisely headed to First Encounter on Saturday morning, though winds were still northeast. It turned out that the birds trapped in the bay had had enough and were heading for the exit - these lucky birders were treated to an astounding four South Polar Skuas, a Brown Booby, and squadrons of Pomarine Jaegers, among other highlights. A few years ago, that Brown Booby would have stolen the show, given that this is a Caribbean seabird with no business in these parts. But this warm water species has become an annual visitor to the Gulf of Maine in just a few short years.

But First Encounter wasn’t the only seabird show on the bill, it turned out. In recent years, birders have been using vehicles to get out to Race Point during storms, having learned that the deep water areas near the lighthouse can be very productive, sometimes more so even than storied First Encounter. Indeed, the Race Point contingency cleaned up on Saturday, with a jaw-dropping list that included over 120 Northern Fulmars, 50 Pomarine Jaegers, a Pacific Loon, and the season’s first alcids in the form of a few Razorbills and Dovekies. Contrasting with these first avian hints of winter were over 500 shearwaters of all four expected species, all leftover from the summer.

Though I’m focused on seabirds this week, rare songbird reports started blowing up as I was “going to press”, as they say in the business. While not likely linked with this storm, a super rare Black-throated Gray Warbler turned up at Salt Pond in Falmouth yesterday. Remarkably, this was only the second rarest bird of the day, well behind the monumentally rare Yellow-green Vireo that was banded at the South Monomoy bird banding station. This individual represents only the second record for all of New England and one of only four records north of Florida for this mainly Central American songbird. Stay tuned for updates on these fancy birds next week.

With the almost unprecedented number of skuas, high counts of birder-pleasing jaegers and fulmars, and surprise Brown Booby, last week’s Nor’easter was a resounding success for few birders who ventured forth into the wind. If you missed out on this storm, more are sure to follow, and hopefully so will the birds. Because, with each storm, and with apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, these storm-blown seabirds are doomed to beat on, birds against the gale, borne back ceaselessly into the bay.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.