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An epic storm for seabirds

David Larson / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

You probably didn’t hear them without a battery-powered radio, but last week I made some predictions about what birds the big storm would bring us, carefully hedged with weasel clauses so I would be right no matter what happened. And guess what, I was right! It turned out to be an epic storm for seabirds, with enough of a wind shift on day two to set up a classic First Encounter Beach seabird extravaganza. For some reason the birds did not make it into the news reports about this storm — somehow the region being bomb-cycloned into the stone age by power outages grabbed all the headlines — but I’m here to set the record straight.

The first hint of how good this storm would be for birds was a Facebook post about rare seabirds in the canal on Wednesday. The canal is not exactly a hotspot for offshore seabirds, but with hurricane strength gusts, this was not your average fall nor’easter. Uncommon offshore birds like Red Phalarope and Pomarine Jaeger were seen sitting among the usual gulls inside the canal waiting until the winds allowed them to fly back out into the bay and eventually, the open Atlantic.

The typical strategy for birding a storm like this is to stay on the western bay shore during the early part of the storm when the winds are northeast — Sandy Neck in Barnstable or Corporation Beach in Dennis are likely spots, if you can see anything, that is. The reports from these locations on Wednesday were modest, at best — good numbers of the expected things like gannets and scoters with maybe a few Pomarine Jaegers. This barely hinted at what was to come on Thursday just a little further east.

As the next morning dawned, birders assembled at First Encounter Beach in Eastham. This beach is at the inflection point of the bay and sees the best flights of birds, all pinned against the beach by storm winds as they find their way back to the ocean. The storm had concentrated common ducks who winter in the Gulf of Maine, who passed in great clouds — over 10,000 Common Eiders and more than 17,000 scoters of all three species were tallied over several hours. Gannets, those giant diving seabirds, were in lower than expected numbers despite a final count of 2500. But it was the excellent showing of the hoped-for and seldom-seen pelagics that defined this storm.

Pomarine Jaegers and Red Phalaropes anchored the rarities, two unrelated species with similar life histories. One is a small sandpiper and the other a big and fiercely predatory gull-like seabird, but both breed in the Arctic then winter far offshore, as far as West Africa. Neither is expected from land on a regular basis, but many hundreds of each streamed by the beach that morning. Two Great Skuas, big, brutish birds of northern seas, even tougher than jaegers, got hearts beating faster. So did the adult Brown Booby — a vagrant tropical seabird that has been quietly increasing here in recent years.

More than 600 Dovekies passed, looking like gnats among the eider flocks in photos posted from the day. These tiny seabirds, miniature footballs on whirring wings, mostly winter at the edge of the Arctic pack ice and are always a treat to see here.

All told, birders saw 34,000 birds of 71 species at First Encounter Thursday morning, pretty good for standing around on a windy beach. Here’s hoping the next cyclone brings even more birds, but less bomb.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.