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Wacky Vagrants of Summer

Aug 15, 2018


Credit Scott Heron / bit.ly/2P7sPcx / bit.ly/1dsePQq

A dragger steaming into Menemsha Harbor on Martha’s Vineyard back on August 6th was harboring a stowaway. This unauthorized passenger from the Caribbean had awkwardly boarded the boat about 5 miles south of Gay Head before settling calmly on the cooler to hitch a ride back to the harbor. The stowaway was a seabird known as the Brown Booby, the first of his kind ever seen on the Vineyard, and he brought birders from all over the island to get a peek.


Brown Boobies breed on remote, widely scattered islands throughout the world’s warmer oceans –if you saw one in the US, you could have been in Key West or Waikiki. They mainly eat flying fish, the wannabe birds of the fish world that perform those long aerial glides over warm tropical waters. The boobies catch them via shallow plunge dives, less spectacular than the high-altitude dives of their more familiar Northern Gannet cousins.

While flying fish do get into the waters of the warm oceanic canyons 100 miles south of Nantucket, still technically in Massachusetts, Brown Boobies typically don’t –thus we have fewer than 10 records. One of those, like this Menemsha bird, made the news by hitching a ride on a whale watch boat returning to Boston harbor.

Another bird made the leap to mainstream news this week, in that the Boston Globe wrote about it – a Great Black Hawk was found, most improbably, in Maine. This big, soaring hawk is common in Central and South America, but how and why it got to Maine is anyone’s guess. Scientists don’t generally study vagrant birds and their fates, so we are left to speculate on how super rare birds from faraway lands get here and what happens to them when they disappear. Most think these ornithological outliers don’t survive to migrate and breed, but there are records of wrong-way birds surviving and returning for multiple years, so I’m not so sure.

In other weird bird news this week, though the calendar says summer, winter is still hanging on at a couple of Cape and Islands beaches. In Hyannis, a long-staying Snow Goose is still being seen at places like Squaw Island. This all-white Arctic goose likely stuck around because of a bum wing but is apparently well fed. Snow Geese are rare winter visitors and are typically long gone before spring arrives. 

Our second example of seasonal cognitive dissonance is provided by the Snowy Owl that has decided to summer in Chatham. Weird, I know – he must have a rich uncle. Like Snow Geese, these owls normally depart for the Arctic before April. I can’t stress enough how weird this is – while we see at least a few Snowys every winter, it’s all but unheard of for any to stay behind. This particular bird has been terrorizing the Common Tern colony on South Monomoy. Like Beowulf’s Grendel, the owl slips into the colony each night to tear a few of the residents asunder, leaving tern parts strewn about the sand. By day he roosts inconspicuously in the dunes somewhere, only to repeat the grisly ritual the next night. With something like 24,000 terns to choose from, this owl apparently just couldn’t resist the easy pickings.

A group of birders seeking shorebirds on the productive flats of South Beach this past weekend photographed the owl, constituting one of the latest records ever for the state.

Late summer on the Cape and Islands offers some of the best birding in the country, whether it’s seabirds, shorebirds, or wacky vagrants you’re after. If you’re crafty, you might even be able to find parking at the best birding spots. And if you’re really lucky, like that fisherman from Menemsha, you too may win the booby prize for best bird of the week.