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Science & Environment

Storm Jose Brings in Fulmars, Skuas, and Jaegers to the Delight of Birders

Eric Ellingson
Red-necked Phalarope

With Hurricane/Tropical Storm Jose finally in the rear view mirror, it’s time to assess how birds were impacted by this strange, lingering storm. When hurricanes approach us from the south, there are a few things that can happen. As I mentioned last week, if the storm remains strong and hits us directly, it can pick up all kinds of Caribbean seabirds along the way, potentially carrying them well inland if the storm makes landfall and tracks west.

Birds you would normally only see from a boat near Cuba or the Bahamas are suddenly viewable on a reservoir in Berkshire Country. Or, the storm could pass offshore, manifesting as a strong nor’easter, in which case it could bring some nice offshore seabirds within sight of land at places like Sandy Neck in Barnstable and First Encounter Beach in Eastham.

As you may have noticed, Jose decided on the nor’easter track. And like that last guest at your party who, oblivious to your exaggerated yawns and references to having to get up early, is still working the snacks and starting new conversations with you after everyone else has left, Jose just couldn’t seem to find the door. Parking himself offshore, Jose created a new kind of nor’easter that I am calling a nev’render. We had gale force northeast winds for days and days – a veritable Groundhogs Day of a storm.

Under those conditions, I would have expected excellent storm birding at north facing Cape Cod Bay beaches, as the birds blown into the bay from out in the Gulf of Maine get pressed up against those shorelines while trying to find their way back out of the bay. Often times one can see large numbers of the small, obscure, ocean-going sandpipers known as phalaropes during such storms. These Arctic nesting shorebirds spend their winters at sea, so a nor’easter is our best bet to see them other than heading offshore in a boat. Some observers did indeed spot some Red-necked Phalaropes from beaches in Barnstable and Dennis during the storm, but overall the storm birding was a big fat dud at the traditional locations, which was very frustrating to this birder.

While it seemed like Jose was a bust both as a tropical storm and as a standard nor’easter, after four straight days of the gale, an all-star cast of seabird aficionados headed out to the Old Faithful of sea birding sites, Race Point in Provincetown. And after a 9 hour vigil at the Race on Saturday, they returned with a list of seabirds that was nothing short of epic. Among these birders was world seabird identification expert and field guide author Steve Howell, so I am fairly confident the birds were well identified.

In addition to the continuing huge flocks of Great Shearwaters and other shearwater species, their list included hundreds of Northern Fulmars, a species almost never seen from land in this part of the world, except during storms. Fulmars are one of the “tubenoses”, closely related to shearwaters, and typically stay well offshore, where they use those special noses to find productive patches of ocean rich with baitfish and squid. They also tallied more than 50 Pomarine Jaegers and over 80 Parasitic Jaegers, which would be enough to cause extreme jealousy among fellow birders. Oh, but they didn’t stop there, having photographed an incredible three different South Polar Skuas, just one of which would have made their day. As they say in the infomercials, “but wait, there’s more!” Early in their sea watching, an uber rare Franklin’s Gull casually flew by, followed two hours later by an equally unexpected Sandwich Tern, a southern species that was perhaps blown north by the storm. Two different Sabine’s Gulls, a rare and exceptionally beautiful small gull of the Arctic, rounded out the rarities for these lucky and hard-working birders.

So what did we learn from Jose? For one thing, we learned to not always trust the bird guy on the radio, or conventional wisdom, for telling you the best places to be for storm birding. It turned out that the best strategy was to wait four days then head to Race Point when the storm had finally started to pass.  We also learned that if Jose shows up to party at your house, you may want to put away the snacks and turn off the lights a little early, otherwise he may still be there four days later.