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Amazing ornithological discoveries keep coming

Cape Verde Shearwater
Jeremiah Trimble
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Cape Verde Shearwater

This has been a giddy week for the Massachusetts ornithological community, as the hits just keep coming from the Cape and Islands. There was the first documented breeding behavior of Swallow-tailed Kites this side of the Carolinas, which I discussed last week. This week, some local ornithologists upped the ante with a pair of drool-worthy finds. One of these birds was the first ever record of its kind, anywhere, by anyone. Think about that one for a second. The other was more ho hum – just a first state, and second North American record for a rare, mainly African seabird. But seriously, the breathless pace of significant ornithological discoveries right now is not sustainable – I’m actually hoping things calm down a bit next week.

Last Friday, some of the local bird cognoscenti, Ian Davies and Jeremiah and Peter Trimble, plus a couple of Connecticut’s finest bird watchers, Nick Bonomo and Julian Hough, set out on Nick’s 19-foot center console in search of seabirds. Serious birders typically start an outing with wild predictions of what they might see, and at the dock, Jeremiah called that they would find a Cape Verde Shearwater- an absurd prediction that presumably drew a chuckle from the others.

They headed straight east of Chatham, where the seabirding and fishing have been hot this summer. Amidst the clouds of Cory’s and Great Shearwaters, Jeremiah noticed a bird off by itself that looked a bit smaller than a normal Cory’s, and with a faded bill. After some excited shouting, the camera shutters went off like machine guns as the bird got up and flew in front of the boat – this was the fabled and improbable bird Jeremiah had idly predicted – a Cape Verde Shearwater. In terms of calling your shots, this wasn’t “eight ball in the corner pocket”, it was clearing the table with one shot.

The other major discovery, the one of a bird no one has ever seen, was not so much a new species, as a new combination of species. Ian Davies was present for this one, too, along with Shea Fee, a Nantucket birder and biologist working on the Vineyard. While searching out shorebirds at a Vineyard hotspot, Ian noticed an oddball among the Semipalmated Sandpipers and Sanderlings. After many photographs and some serious scrutiny of the plumage, bill pattern, and structure, Ian concluded, correctly in my opinion, that this was a hybrid of a Semipalmated Sandpiper and a White-rumped Sandpiper, two species that nest on Arctic tundra and winter in South America. It must have been hard to find a same-species mate on the tundra this year. However it happened, no one has identified this hybrid combination before, though there are many other well-known shorebird hybrids.

These people were not “lucky”, as some have said, unless you use that old definition of luck: when opportunity meets preparation. The birding parties held several lifetimes-worth of well-honed field identification skills and book study, plus the photography chops needed to properly document the finds. They knew all the possibilities for what could be out there, and had the intense focus to find the needle in the haystack.

My favorite part about these discoveries is that they were made by some local Cape and Island kid birders done good – Jeremiah Trimble, Ian Davies, and Shea Fee. All are grown professional adults now, working with birds at places like Harvard and Cornell, but I knew a couple of them when they were indeed birder kids.

It goes to show, I think, what fertile grounds these are for young biological minds. So many creatures of land and sea pass through this area – via fins, feathers, and otherwise – with so many organizations that protect and study them. This creates opportunities for spark moments to ignite the curiosity of the next generation of biological explorers and thinkers. Maybe some are listening right now.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.