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Bad weather birding

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Mark Faherty
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Yellow-billed Cuckoo

This past weekend I led a field school on one of my favorite topics, fall birding on Cape Cod. Field Schools are weekend-long courses based out of Mass Audubon sanctuaries, designed to explore some aspect of nature in great detail. Between Friday afternoon and Sunday afternoon we hit various hotspots to sample some of what the fall migration had to offer. I also gave a lecture and we visited our bird banding station. If you think back a few days, you may remember that the weather this past weekend was, let’s say aggressively terrible for outdoor activities – either very windy, very rainy, or both. So how does one go birding in such weather? Or maybe you are asking “why does one go birding in such weather?”

Good question. There’s an old saying that goes “there’s no bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”. That sounds good, but it’s just as untrue in birding as it is generally. There is definitely bad weather, but sometimes bad weather brings good birds, or at least lowers your expectations enough that everything seems like a good bird. The strategy for birding a forecast like that is to take what the wind and rain give you, and I took various approaches, like focusing on waterbirds who don’t care about rain, finding places relatively sheltered from the northeast wind, and ultimately, heading straight into the teeth of the wind to find storm blown seabirds.

On Friday, we began with good weather and good birds at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary. On the way out to the beach a Pectoral Sandpiper was cooperative in the Goose Pond, then a performative trailside Yellow-billed Cuckoo wowed the group with close, confiding looks. Whimbrels, big and seldom seen sandpipers, flew in and landed right in front of us as we sorted through the hundreds of seabirds, mainly Laughing Gulls and Forster’s Terns, plus dozens of herons and egrets. A giant, shifting flock of a few hundred scoters, likely Surf Scoters, passed high overhead, offering the group a craned-neck glimpse at the enormity of the migration of hundreds of thousands of sea ducks just getting underway. The walk ended toward dusk with some classic wildlife sanctuary ambience — a serenade from two different coyote packs, a Virginia rail calling from the marsh, and the hooting of a close Great Horned Owl.

The following day the rain held off just long enough for us to spend some time at the sanctuary banding station, where birds in the hand included a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a short-distance migrant going no further than the southeastern US, and a Blackpoll Warbler with more ambitious travel plans, next stop Brazil. Seeing these tiny featherweights up close brings home the absurdity of their migratory feats, dodging hurricanes, hungry falcons and seabirds along an 1800-mile overwater flight.

On Sunday, as we dodged 30 mph winds, we found a protected spot and made an extended study of a mixed shorebird flock in a Chatham marsh, around 200 birds. The marquee sighting here was a close group of six Marbled Godwits, huge, cinnamon-toned sandpipers hailing from the Canadian prairie provinces. Their impressive bill, bicolored and upturned, is longer than an entire chickadee.

To end the weekend with a bang, we headed into the belly of the beast – to Sandy Neck in Barnstable to experience the full fetch and fury of the gale force northeast winds. There, if you put your time in, winds like this in fall may turn up big flights of uncommon seabirds rarely seen from shore. We missed the morning seabird flight, where birders noted little seagoing sandpipers known as phalaropes, some appropriately named storm-petrels, and a rare and beautiful Arctic gull known as Sabine’s Gull. We did see impressive numbers of gannets and sea ducks bucking the wind, plus two equally impressive Peregrine Falcons tacking around in the gusts just for fun.

The sea was angry that day, but hopefully my field school pupils were happy — I think we wrested about as many birds from that foul forecast as could be expected, along with memorable experiences with some flashy and uncommon migrants. I think maybe we proved, after all, that there’s no bad birding weather, just inappropriate clothing, and birding trip leaders who make bad bird puns. That may be a little specific to this case, but you get the idea.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.