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Special birds that the storm—just might—drag in

Razorbills and part of huge eider flock
Mark Faherty
Razorbills and part of huge eider flock

Once again, we’re all bracing for one of those multi-day nor’easters, which of course means buying lots of toilet paper for some reason, but also planning where and when you’ll watch for storm driven seabirds. With strong northeast winds, offshore birds get pushed into Cape Cod Bay, like your neighbor’s leaves getting blown into your yard. Then birders with high-powered optics get pushed into beach parking lots to see them. Because as these storm-blown unfortunates try to find their way back to open ocean they are often viewable at places like Sandy Neck in Barnstable or First Encounter Beach in Eastham.

So why push away from the tv and leave your cozy house to go get sand blasted at a beach? Storms at this time of year typically bring seldom-seen birds like Pomarine Jaeger, maybe Northern Fulmar, and, if you’re lucky, even a skua within sight of land. Less obscure, more expected fare might include perhaps hundreds to more than a thousand Northern Gannets, thousands of scoters, and, the common winter gull you’ve perhaps never heard of, Black-legged Kittiwakes. Unlike some of the local loafers that follow fishing fleets or hit the local landfill, the relatively delicately built kittiwake works for a living, finding its own fish and rarely coming ashore except to breed. Thousands are in Cape waters all winter but you’ll almost never see one sitting on the beach.

Even a few puffins have turned up around these October storms in past years, though don’t bet your house on seeing one. You’re more likely to see a few of their more expected close relatives, like Razorbills and also Dovekies, those adorable little Arctic seabirds who sometimes end up in roads and parking lots after a big blow. During and just after this storm, keep an eye out for a small black and white rubber duckie-looking seabird sitting on the ground, often well away from water, and get them to your local wildlife rehabber, either Wild Care in Orleans or Cape Wildlife in Barnstable.

I would say keep an eye out for shearwaters, those ocean wanderers we see most often from whale watch boats all summer, but they seem to have cleared out early this year – almost none are being reported from Race Point and other likely spots, where even the terns have left early. But a storm can change things fast, so we may see some back in our waters presently. If you really want to swing for the seabird fences, keep your eyes peeled for a Yellow-nosed Albatross – there are two October records for this monstrous seabird of the south seas with its 8-foot wingspan, both at First Encounter Beach.

By way of hedging my bets, I need to point out that there may also be very little in the way of seabirds produced by this storm. In a typical nor’easter, the storm passes quickly and is followed by strong westerly wind and drier weather – it’s those west winds that pin seabirds against the bay shores of the Outer Cape where people can see them. The offshore low pressure system looks like it will loiter longer than your in-laws in August, with nothing but easterly winds predicted for almost the next week. So to summarize my predictions, this storm may, or may not, bring in lots of seabirds. It’s just this kind of brilliant analysis you’ve come to expect from the weekly bird report.

But with the storm well underway, we’ll know soon enough. As the results come in from the collective efforts of the local seabirders over the next few days, I expect we’ll be able to answer that age-old question, the one we’ve all asked many times: how many seabirds can a seabirder see when a seabirder does see seabirds? Tune in here, as always, for the answer.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.