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Birds on boats

Baltimore Oriole
Ryan Schain
Baltimore Oriole

There are different forms of rarity in birding. There’s the classic, intuitive sort – a bird that is rare overall, like a California Condor. Then there are birds rare to your part of the world or for the time of year, like all these western birds that keep popping up, or the occasional mega rare European or Asian bird a lucky birder trips over now and again. There’s another category I don’t really mine very much, if ever – common birds in uncommon places. In this case, the common birds are various workaday New England songbirds, and the uncommon place is boats.

What got me thinking about birds on boats, were some recent reports from a young biologist named Liam Waters. Liam’s been a skilled, well-known birder on the Cape and beyond since he was basically a kid, having put more hours in at Race Point than most birders several decades his senior. He’s currently aboard a Northeast Fisheries Science Center research vessel, the bird guy on a multidisciplinary team looking at everything from plankton to chemistry. The boat is often over a hundred miles from shore, and while his seabird sightings have been appropriately interesting, it’s the songbird reports that have caught my eye.

Imagine being that far from shore when a flock of five juncos joins your crew, hanging out on deck for a few days, as they did this week. The same happened with three Snow Buntings, delightful birds who nest further north than any other songbird. Or stepping out of the bridge as a little Lapland Longspur, also just in from some faraway Arctic tundra, lands at your feet. A seabird cruise on Stellwagen Bank back in October tallied more types of songbirds than seabirds, including a Cedar Waxwing, and various sparrows and warblers, all circling the boat like tiny, not very intimidating pirates.

Back in September, some Maine fishermen saw so many songbirds on and around their boats, they thought the birds were fleeing in panic ahead of Hurricane Lee, but it was just an unusually heavy migration night and the birds were attracted to the boat lights. One day in April of last year we had a heavy songbird migration here on the Cape coupled with heavy fog, and fishing boats were seeing dozens of disoriented warblers, thrushes, kinglets, and flickers landing on the boats and even their heads, which is a classic scene when tired songbirds land on boats. I’ve been on enough offshore boat trips in fall that I’ve seen someone with an actual oriole on their baseball cap.

Little birds aren’t the only ones hitching rides. Ten years, ago nine Snowy Owls fleeing food shortages in Canada hopped a container ship on its way from New York to the Netherlands. Some disappeared over the course of the trans-Atlantic voyage, but two made it across and stayed the winter to the delight of the Dutch birders. House Crows, a nonmigratory species originally from India, have made a profession of hopping ships, using them to establish new populations as far away as, once again, the Netherlands. I’m not sure why so many birds are hopping boats to the Netherlands – is their chamber of commerce sending brochures out to the international bird community?

Here we live in a place of boats, and I reckon there are tons of other stories out there I don’t know about, especially from offshore crews. The concept of songbird stowaways is something to be aware of the next time you’re offshore in migration season - while you scan the horizon for shearwaters, try not to miss the tired little kinglet perched on your binoculars.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.