Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Hurricane Brings Rare Birds to New England
September 03, 2011

By Steve Grinley

     We were spared the brunt of the hurricane in our area, though western New England didn’t fair as well. Storms like this do take their toll on birds, with many birds blown way off course and many succumb to the harsh weather conditions. While officials warned people to stay off the roads during the storm, there are always some birders that will brave the elements and venture out in search of those rare birds that might show up during such an event. I guess I could liken it to “storm chasers”, those who drive toward tornadoes, rather than away from them. I chose not to be one of them.

     The rare bird alert on the Internet, Massbird, was down, so it was hard to know what was going on out there. A few of the more local bird alerts, like Bostonbirds and CapeCodbirds, gave a glimpse of a few rarities that had been seen. Text messages came through that a white-tailed tropicbird and a sooty tern, both southern birds – rare in the northeast, were seen at Quabbin Reservoir in western Massachusetts. E-mails revealed that sooty and bridled terns (another southern rarity) had been seen in other locales. Seeing these few reports made it all the more difficult to be indoors on a weekend day.

     By mid-afternoon, the eye of the storm had passed, the rain had pretty much stopped, and the winds subsided with gusts to only 40mph or so. After watching hour upon hour of foolish weatherpersons, standing in the worst locations they can find while trying to talk into a microphone wrapped in plastic, well – it got pretty old. We glanced out the window and when we noticed that our 90 year old neighbor’s car was gone, we figured if he can go out, so can we!

     Since we were in Cambridge, we decided to head down to Quincy where a number of Royal and Caspian terns had been seen in the past week. We headed out to the point in Squantum and found hundreds of terns on a sand bar there. As I scoped the terns (which was a challenge with occasional gusts of wind), I found a black tern, and then another, and another. I was up to about six black terns when we decided to approach closer, as there were more birds on the other side of the crest that we could not see. As we got near, some people on the sand bar walked near the terns and they all took flight. A small group of terns circled on their own and came toward us, almost passing overhead. It was a flock of about twenty-five black terns, the most I have ever seen in Massachusetts at one time! I looked them over carefully as they passed, hoping for the rare sooty tern, but no luck.

     We then decided to head to Wollaston Beach. We had a few black terns out on the mud flats, but it was across the road in Black’s Creek where we found another large group of black terns. There were another forty or so flying around the creek, fishing as they went!

     So we were up to about seventy black terns when I received a call from Bill Gette. He was calling to inform me that the power was out at Mass Audubon Joppa Flats. He asked where I was and I told him about the incredible number of black terns that we were seeing at Wollaston Beach. Bill called back about fifteen minutes later and said that, based on our conversation about the black terns, he set up his scope and looked out at Newburyport Harbor from his home across from the seawall. He was looking at a hundred black terns!

     That evening, and during the following day, as Massbird came back up and started displaying posts from during and after the storm, we were able to get a better idea of the number of rarities that were brought northward with Irene. There were sooty terns in Winthrop and on the Cape. Sooty and bridled terns were seen in Westport. A sooty tern was found along a road on Nantucket, kept overnight and was released the next morning. There was another white-tailed tropicbird found flying around a pond in Pittsfield and one was picked up off someone’s lawn in Canterberry, New Hampshire. That bird was still alive and taken to a rehab facility. There were two separate reports of brown pelicans off Cape Cod. And now, almost a week later, rare birds are still being discovered.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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