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Hurricane Lee postgame bird analysis

Sabine’s gull
Peter R Flood
Sabine’s gull

Hurricane, then Tropical Storm, then “Post-Tropical Cyclone” Lee has come and gone. Lee barely grazed us with some ho-hum 50 mph gusts that downed a few trees, having passed well to our east. But how did it score in storm-birding terms? And more importantly, how did I score in my pre-storm predictions?

In my wooded yard, the storm was a pussy cat, just a windier than average day. At a beach, of course, it was a different story. I managed to shirk family duties long enough to spend a couple of hours at the most famous place to watch storm birds in Massachusetts, First Encounter Beach in Eastham. This beach faces due west, just above the inside elbow of the Cape. This means that birds who were blown into Cape Cod Bay can get pushed right against the beach by the strong northwest winds that follow a nor’easter.

By the time I snuck in, all the front row parking spots had long ago filled up with birders, many arrived at sunrise. Everyone was holed up in their cars, though occasionally I would see someone I recognized moving between the vehicles, walking like a mime doing that exaggerated “walking into the wind” thing. I spent some time outside the car to talk with people through their open birdwatching windows, which were always on the leeward side of the cars. A 50-mph northwest wind at First Encounter is no joke – it comes straight in off the water and carries a lot of sand – I call it the First Encounter Exfoliating Treatment. It’s great for dulling paint jobs and windshields as well – better not to buy a used car from a storm birder.

As a late arriver, I had to settle for a second-row parking spot with a limited viewing window between a truck and the south dune. I had missed the big flight of Red-necked Phalaropes, an offshore sandpiper, as well as all the Pomarine Jaegers, a big brute that steals food from other seabirds – many of the best birds tend to pass early, as they are eager to get back out to the open ocean. I did get to see some Leach’s Storm-Petrels, an expected North Atlantic storm bird but always a rare treat to see from land.

The best bird was a Sabine’s Gull that I saw ever so briefly before it disappeared in a wave trough. Though they are working with the limited color palette of the group, I think Sabine’s may be the world’s most beautiful gull. This small, delicate, and rare Arctic species sports a striking gray, black and white wing pattern, a charcoal gray head rimmed with black, and a yellow-tipped bill. My brief view of this wind-battered bird was not so satisfying, but the pattern of big, white triangles on the open wings is distinctive even at great distance.

While these birds typical of a run-of-the-mill North Atlantic nor’easter were nice, as I, and others, had predicted, this storm did not bring tropical birds to Massachusetts. More surprisingly, it didn’t bring many to Nova Scotia, either - just two Sooty Terns - though it made a direct hit there. The bird cognoscenti had bet on a big fallout of rare birds there, so several of the northeast’s top birders had trekked from Massachusetts and New York to Canada to chase the expected fallout of tropical and Gulf Stream waifs, only to be disappointed.

We have no other storms to prognosticate about for now – the season’s 14th named storm, Hurricane Nigel, is in the middle of the Atlantic but heading straight for the British Isles, as one would expect from a hurricane named Nigel. But what’s the status of those birders who went all the way to Canada with no rare storm birds to show for it? Let’s raise a Dark and Stormy to them, because last I heard, they were downgraded into a Tropical Depression of their own.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.