The November bird Mark's been waiting for
It’s Thanksgiving week, and I’ve got that big, brown bird on my mind. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water – it’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often, maybe only once a year. I’m of course talking about the opportunity to see that rare Brown Booby that’s been hanging around off Eastham over the last week. What did you think I meant? In any case, this geographically challenged tropical seabird has been seen three times in the last week, no doubt feeding on a little-known fish that’s been providing a holiday feast for seabirds in the bay. And the booby isn’t the only tropical animal in the bay right now – two kinds of sea turtle are washing up at a record clip in the last week. So, while I would normally phone in some turkey-related drivel this week, it’s clear we need to talk about the weird stuff going on in Cape Cod Bay right now.
It’s like global warming theater out there. The Brown Booby is normally confined to warm Caribbean waters, with Fort Lauderdale marking the extreme northern end of the range map. Yet they have become annual visitors to the rapidly warming Gulf of Maine in the last decade – I now expect several sightings per year here on the Cape. They closely resemble the related Northern Gannet, but smaller and slimmer proportioned. Adults are dark chocolate brown everywhere but the belly and wing linings, which are white, and sport a a pointy tail and big, pale spear tip of a bill.
The booby is just one of a cast of thousands currently feeding off of Eastham’s bay side beaches – thousands of gulls and gannets are making a thanksgiving feast of an obscure baitfish that often washes ashore on bay beaches in fall, the pointy faced Atlantic saury. These big, silver baitfish have a needle-sharp beak protruding from the lower jaw. It looks like something that would be risky to eat whole, but the birds are gorging, apparently including this booby, as it’s been seen three times this week. Saury move south each fall, and some always seem to get caught in Cape Cod Bay as the temperature drops, washing up on certain beaches en masse.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same thing happening with the other creatures washing up on bay beaches right now, Kemp’s ridley and green sea turtles. The Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay sea turtle rescue program has seen around 150 come in over the last five days, mainly in Eastham, most found by our trained and federally permitted staff and volunteers. We get them stabilized, collect the initial data, and send them off to rehab facilities at the New England Aquarium and the National Marine Life Center in Bourne.
The number of these juvenile, critically endangered sea turtles ending up cold-stunned on bay beaches each year has been steadily increasing, thanks to a combination of the warming Gulf of Maine and successful conservation efforts on their nesting beaches in Texas and Mexico. Twenty years ago it was rare for us to see more than 50 or 100 cold stunned sea turtles per year, now we can get that many in a few days, and season totals sometimes top 1000.
So that’s where we’re at in Cape Cod Bay right now – a Caribbean seabird is chowing on chilly baitfish who are trying, unsuccessfully, to swim south to warmer waters, while hundreds of critically endangered, young sea turtles from the Gulf of Mexico struggle to stay alive in the rapidly cooling bay. Both turtles and fish are washing ashore in numbers on certain beaches.
If you happen to find a sea turtle, please place it well above the high tide line, cover it with seaweed, and mark it in some way so our staff can find it. Next, call Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay at 508-349-2615 x6104. If you find a saury, well, they’re dead so you can’t do much, but maybe you can try frying it up if it’s fresh – I know folks who’ve tried them. If that sounds harsh, well, to paraphrase what the kids say: saury, not sorry….