'King of the Beasts' Among Seabirds, South Polar Skua Sighted Several Times

Jul 26, 2017

As we pass the midpoint of meteorological summer and start that accelerating roll to Labor Day, it’s time to check in on what’s happening out there in the bird world.

I will admit that I routinely neglect our South Coast friends in my bird reports, but not this time. And that’s because something unusual is afoot (or should I say a-wing?) at the famed Gooseberry Island in Westport.

Shrubby and uninhabited, Gooseberry hangs south into Buzzards Bay at the end of a thin causeway below Horseneck Beach. Known as Gooseberry Neck to birders, it’s best known for its early morning flights of songbirds reorienting towards land after a night of migrating. What it’s not known for is Race Point-style seabird flights. That’s why birders have been shocked recently by huge early morning flights of shearwaters passing the point. Most are Cory’s Shearwaters, but five species have been recorded, including a super rare Audubon’s Shearwater, which is essentially unheard of from shore. It’s likely these birds are following warm water up into Buzzard’s Bay, where water temps are currently well above those to the East.

Back on the Cape, birders have been shrugging about where to find shorebirds in recent years due to changes in the accessibility of the key sites like South Beach and North Monomoy Island in Chatham. South Beach, formerly a must visit for birders in search of rare shorebirds, is a birding ghost town these days thank to shifting sands in the surrounding channels. As a result, folks are exploring more accessible sites like Chapin Beach in Dennis, Grays Beach in Yarmouth, and Barnstable Harbor. Thanks to all the extra eyeballs, these sites have been producing not just shorebirds but also rare terns like Black, Forster’s, and Royal Terns, as well as fancy gull species like Little Gull and Black-headed Gull. 

Elsewhere on the Cape, a true “King of the Beasts” among seabirds known as the South Polar Skua has been sighted up to four times in recent weeks. These muscular brutes bully birds up to the size of gannets to steal their fish, and are guaranteed to get a seabird lover’s heart racing. Seeing one of these guys is akin to hooking up with a marlin off Nantucket, likely producing a similar number of high-fives and celebratory libations back on shore. As the name would imply, South Polar Skuas breed on the Antarctic coast, where they feed on penguins. So, these birds had to do a lot more than get over the bridge on a Saturday morning to get here.

Back on land, though it may seem early, a few song birds and marsh birds are already migrating, and listening skyward at night can sometimes add an unexpected yard bird to your list. I was surprised late one night last week to hear Virginia Rail calling as it flew over my wooded neighborhood, far from any appropriate marshy habitat. And early migrant Yellow Warblers and Northern Waterthrushes are already on the move, intent on beating the rush to their Central American wintering grounds.

So in summary, there’s a lot going on out there. Whether you hit the marshes and mudflats for shorebirds, board a whale watch to ply the sea for skuas and shearwaters, or just hang out on your deck to watch the hummingbirds and wait for the tourists to leave, the important thing is to get out and look at stuff, because summer isn’t going anywhere just yet. In fact, I don’t want to alarm you, but you’ve still got six whole changeover days ‘til Labor Day…