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A Famous Visitor Attracts Attention on His Cape Cod Vacation

Brad Winn/Manomet
Ahanu the Whimbrel

A celebrity has returned to Wellfleet for their annual summer retreat. Tired after the long flight east, this luminary is relaxing on Lieutenant Island while dining on locally caught crabmeat. I am of course talking about a bird, and it’s Ahanu the Whimbrel. Ok, “celebrity” may be a strong word. But as the only satellite tagged Cape Cod Whimbrel to ever reveal the full annual migration from breeding grounds to wintering grounds and back, this bird is indeed a celebrity to a small handful of Manomet researchers and other bird fans, and has even been featured in a Boston Globe article, among other media appearances.


Whimbrels are spectacular creatures. Basically big sandpipers, they have an enormous, downcurved bill designed by natural selection to help them pillage the villages of fiddler crabs – the curve roughly matches an average burrow. As a bit of a foraging specialist, Whimbrels are not the kind of shorebird you are tripping over around here like the more widespread Sanderling or Semipalmated Plover. The best, most accessible places to see them are Forest Beach in Chatham and Wellfleet Bay sanctuary, where fiddler crabs are so plentiful the Whimbrels just walk around eating their fill, leaving a telltale trail of uneaten claws.


Ahanu, the name chosen by Manomet ornithologists Brad Winn and Alan Kneidel, is a Native American word meaning “he laughs”, a fact which I just confirmed on the iron-clad research website babynames.com. If you decide to name your baby Ahanu, please let me know – I suspect they will be the only one in their class. Brad and Alan captured this Ahanu in a part of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay sanctuary by Lieutenant Island in late summer of 2018. Thanks to the powerful technology in his small satellite-tracked backpack, he has since revealed the details of a breathtaking annual cycle spanning the entire hemisphere.


On September 28, 2018, Ahanu flew over 2500 nonstop miles from Wellfleet to South America, stopping in all three of those obscure countries you can never remember, all of which sound something like Guyiname, before settling in coastal Brazil for the winter.  The next April he flew over 4000 miles nonstop—four straight days of flight—to coastal Texas, where he spent a well-earned month fattening up. Next, another quick 2500-mile flight to middle-of-nowhere Northwest Territories, Canada, for the impossibly short breeding season available at these Arctic latitudes.


Fast forward to a few days ago, when Ahanu arrived in Wellfleet after yet another non-stop flight from his post-breeding stopover site on Canada’s Hudson Bay, where he spent a month unwinding after a grueling month of raising kids. Beyond the wow factor of the technology and all the eye-popping migration stats, all of this information - the location and duration of stopover sites, the non-stop flights, the location of breeding and wintering grounds - is important information that helps to target shorebird conservation efforts.


While you can’t recreationally satellite track birds, you can contribute to this type of migration research while here on vacation or birding your local haunts. In fact, two of my star volunteers, Nancy Braun and Jeannette Bragger, discovered a Ruddy Turnstone in North Truro last week sporting a faded blue leg flag with a barely readable code. I used the website bandedbirds.org to figure out this globetrotter had been banded on the wintering grounds in Brazil and also resighted in New Jersey during spring migration, but hadn’t been seen since 2017. So keep your camera and binoculars handy, as you, too, could be a paparazzo for celebrity shorebirds. Just pray you don’t run into the Sean Penn of shorebirds  - that could get ugly.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.