Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Fourteen Hour Drive for a Five Minute Bird
September 27, 2014
By Steve Grinley

     I have, in my days, traveled long distances on short notice to see a rare bird. In fact, I have shared a few of those trips with you in my column. There was the black-tailed gull at Lake Champlain in Northern Vermont (saw it), the hawk owl in northern New Hampshire (saw it), and the gray-headed gull at Coney Island, NY (missed it). 

     It was just last year that I led an impromptu field trip for the Brookline Bird Club to Montreal, Canada to see a Ross’ Gull. Up and back, fourteen hours of driving, in one day. We did see the Ross’ gull and we were able to spend some time with it, a couple of hours viewing, photographing it, etc. It was a life bird for twelve of the fourteen people on that trip.

     This year, I did it once again. A whiskered tern, a Eurasian bird, was found on Friday, September 12, at Cape May, New Jersey. This was only the third record for North America, but we had seen this bird in Thailand five years ago. Still, it would be nice to have this bird on our individual North American lists which are nearing the magical number of 700 for both Margo and me. 

     When such rare birds are reported, one never knows if they are a “one-day-wonder,” seen only that day and gone the next. That is, in fact, more often the case. Such was not the case with this bird. The whiskered tern was seen again the next day when we were on the Cape Cod Weekend trip that I wrote about last week. Several of the participants were wondering if they should make a mad dash to Cape May Saturday afternoon or Sunday. We chose to stay on the Cape as we already had a room commitment and, as I reported last week, it was good birding on the Cape after not being there all summer.

     Then we came to last weekend and the bird was still being seen through Friday. However we had reservations to be on the pelagic boat trip out of Harwichport early on Sunday morning. Still, at the last minute, we decided to get up early Saturday morning and drive to Cape May, hopefully see the bird, and then drive back to the Cape from there. Crazy? Perhaps.

     We left just after 4 am and hit almost no traffic, arriving in Cape May around 10:30 am. We went directly to the lighthouse and the Hawk Watch platform where the bird was seen in the past. We were told by other birders who were there that the bird was being seen on the beach near the end of a road about a quarter mile away. So we hopped back in the car and went there (we could have walked.) Walking over a dune to the beach, we saw a row of birders with scopes, a few hundred feet down the beach, looking at a group of gulls and terns. 

     We walked down the line of birders, a little surprised to not see anyone we knew. We looked frantically at the mix of a hundred or more gulls and terns and finally asked about the whiskered tern. “It is right over there.” one fellow said nonchalantly. I guess the excitement was over for some of these folks. 

     We fixed our binoculars, and then our scopes on a dark tern in the group. Sure enough – whiskered tern! Its dark gray breast and underside, peppered with a little darker gray like a molting black-bellied plover, contrasted with the white cheek below its black cap. It had a stout bill compared to the common and Forster’s terns around it. We were only about twenty feet away from the birds and Margo got some great shots with her camera. Two photos can be seen on our Flickr site at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/24246528@N05/15336088852.

     The bird was almost too close to phonescope, though after five minute of observing the bird in my scope, I thought I would try. But before I could, the whole flock of birds put up. (There had been a merlin hunting the area we were told.) We could notice the darker underparts of the whiskered tern easily as it banked a couple of times and then it headed down the beach. I stayed with it as it flew east along the beach back toward the lighthouse and, eventually out of sight. 

     It was a brief, but very satisfying, five minutes with the bird. We hoped for more, so we went back to the lighthouse area and searched the nearby pond and beach. No luck. We spend a couple more hours searching the area without success before we decided to head back to Cape Cod, which would be another seven or eight hour drive. 

     In birding, timing is everything. We did learn that the whiskered was found again later that afternoon and evening. However, it was NOT seen on Sunday, and it hasn’t been seen since. We considered ourselves fortunate. Though we spent fourteen hours driving, we were able to have a precious few minutes with that bird.

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