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Nantucket shines during the Christmas Bird Count

Magnificent Frigatebird
Jeremiah Trimble
Magnificent Frigatebird

With the final tallies for Truro, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard now in, the 122nd Christmas Bird Count season has come to a close. With little land area and few productive ponds, my Truro count is the little count that could, but the island counts are typically part of a Clash of the Titans each year, vying for top species count honors with the Cape and Mid-Cape Counts. We’ll get to the winner and highlights in a minute, but, spoiler alert, Nantucket will be taking up most of the oxygen this week.

The Vineyard count, which was held on Sunday, had its share of highlights among the at least 120 species identified. The best was a wayward Western Tanager that’s been around all winter, choosing the island over its normal winter range in southern Mexico for some reason. The tanager was nice enough to show itself on the official count day, along with island specialties like Barn Owl, lingering Tree Swallows and wintering Black-crowned Night Herons, plus some Snow Geese, a late Blue-headed Vireo and many other goodies.

But the Nantucket count has authoritatively won the title this year, claiming both the most species of any count in the region, plus the wackiest, rarest bird award. This past Sunday, an all-star cast of islanders and long-time carpetbaggers from around the region, including Connecticut and New York, gathered at nearly full strength for the first time since 2019. They identified at least 132 species that day, including two really big finds, and I mean that in every sense of the word big.

The craziest sighting of all went to Jeremiah Trimble, who looked up in ‘Sconset late morning to see none other than a Magnificent Frigatebird sitting there on the overhead electrical wire, like it was trying to pass as a Mourning Dove. These gangly, tropical sea birds are the size of military transport aircraft, so it was hard to miss up there on the wire. It’s truly among the most bizarre bird finds and photos I’ve ever seen. Jeremiah quickly got the word out and soon all the other counters arrived from the far-flung corners of the island they were covering, before all retreating back to their assigned sectors. The bird was apparently still sitting there after dark. The nearest other figatebird right now is in North Florida, so how this one got there and where it goes next is anyone’s guess.

The thing is, there were several other super rare birds on the count already, any of which would have been the envy of most Christmas counts, things like two Sedge Wrens, Tundra Swan, and especially Trumpeter Swan. That’s right — they had three species of swan on the island, including the usual Mute Swans, which is not normal. Trumpeter Swan is the rarest swan on the continent, and there are only a few previous state records. One of these 26 pound beasts has been among Mute Swans on Sesachacha Pond for close to two weeks, but was relegated to the rare bird B-list on count day thanks to that Frigatebird. Such is the tradition of incredible avian finds on Nantucket, a remote outpost full of birds and those who love them.

I always make this out to be some kind of horse race, and there is certainly some friendly competition among the different local counts, but it’s not a big part of what this is. It’s more about getting out there to see what you can find in “your area," a sector you may have covered for decades where you know all the birdiest nooks and crannies, each holding memories of what fun birds you found there some other year. It’s also about providing good data to a venerable old data set, going back more than a century, which has been tapped for innumerable research papers.

But the counts are over for the year, leaving some of us with a bit of birding withdrawal. Luckily the new year is a great time to go birding, with 2022 as a blank birding slate and lots of good bird intel thanks to the counts. So, as always, I implore you to get out there and bird. Whatever has been holding you back, just say “frigate” and get out there. Well, maybe don’t say frigate around other birders, as it may cause a panic given the Frigatebird sighting and all.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.