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A Rare Bird Was Spotted, But Not Really Seen

Mark Faherty
Wood Stork

If a rare bird shows up, but no “birder” sees it, was it really there? This was the deep, metaphysical question I was pondering this week, thanks to the emergence of some shadowy reports and blurry photos depicting one of the rarest birds on the Cape in many years. 


Some locals with a passing interest in birds, enough to know they had seen something unusual, photographed this lumbering beast of a bird at various places in Eastham and Orleans last week, reporting it only to their local purveyor of fine bird seed. But by the time word made it to the birder set at least four days later, the bird suddenly disappeared. And so it was that the Cape’s first Wood Stork in 25 years flew under the radar of the local birding community.

On Saturday, I was texted a photo of a blurry photo of what was clearly an immature Wood Stork, standing forlornly in a yard in Eastham. By then, I later learned, it had been in the area for at least 4 days, reported between Skaket Beach in Orleans and the Boat Meadow area of Eastham. Some birders spent the afternoon and next morning in search of this primo rarity with no luck.

Notably, though there are less than ten Massachusetts records of this rare southern wading bird, this was the second Massachusetts Wood Stork this month. The other ended up at a wildlife rehab facility in Sutton – one of those Worcester County towns that you’re not sure is really in Massachusetts – and was also never seen by birders. This was November 3, the same day a Wood Stork, possibly the same bird, was photographed flying over Block Island, Rhode Island. So at a time when our local residents are heading to Florida, it appears that for some reason Florida is heading here.

The only other Cape and Islands records I can find are a Martha’s Vineyard specimen from 1918, back when they shot rare birds with guns instead of cameras, and a 1994 record from Cotuit, which was when I was in college and apparently too deep in my grunge phase to know about rare birds yet. Like this most recent bird, these Wood Storks also turned up in November, which must be a time of dispersal for youngsters.

I connect with Wood Storks, and not just because we are both bald. They remind me of my younger days doing bird research in the Everglades, where the Wood Stork is one of those birds that, although federally Endangered, could be seen in roadside ditches next to strip malls. Such is birding in South Florida, were the birds are tame and abundant even in the unlikeliest of places. Wood Stork populations crashed from 15,000 pairs to 500 pairs when the Everglades were ditched and drained in the early 20th century, but populations have stabilized enough recently to upgrade them from Endangered to Threatened.

If you see this wayward stork, or any other rare bird, consider reporting it to eBird, or your local Mass Audubon sanctuary, or one of the several local listservs and Facebook groups devoted to birding, to give other folks a chance to see it for themselves. Or at least tell me, so I can make sure the bird really exists, metaphysically speaking. If any of us really exists, that is.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.