Look at What the Storm Brought In

Mar 7, 2018

Atlantic Puffins were among the birds seen during our recent storm.
Credit Jean-Jacques Boujot

While we still seem to be dodging the bullet of a late winter blizzard, things have been uncommonly stormy this past week, to say the least. East-facing beaches have once again been been pounded, over-washed, and leveled by nearly 80 mph winds and 20+ foot seas conspiring with the already super high monthly tides.

I’ll leave it to the legitimate news media to tell you about the infrastructure damage and continuing power outages in some areas, but with another nor’easter approaching on the heels of the last, it’s time to talk storm birding.

Strong northeast winds from storms like this tend to pick up birds from out in the Gulf of Maine and drive them southeast into Cape Cod Bay, where we can hope to see them from bayside beaches as they struggle to find their way back to the open ocean. Tiny Skaket Beach in Orleans won the prize for most interesting storm driven birds this week. More of a dog park than a beach, and not typically on the birding circuit, Skaket was the storm-birding version of that snowboarder who won gold in the super G skiing event – nobody saw it coming.

During a four-hour vigil in the continuing gale-force winds and intermittent rain on Saturday at Skaket, Blair Nikula scored one of the most sought after and seldom seen seabirds in the form of two different Atlantic Puffins. While puffins winter in the Gulf of Maine and can occasionally be seen from boats, they are almost never seen from shore. A recent study tracking puffins from breeding colonies in Maine showed that many winter in the deep water coral canyons and sea mount area 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod, a bio-diverse 5,000 square-mile area declared a National Monument in 2016. For this reason, it usually takes a storm to bring any within sight of land in these parts.

While the puffin is the flagship species among the auks, also known as alcids, five more species of these puffin relatives occur in this area, four of which were also seen off Skaket. A handful of tiny Dovekies and larger Thick-billed Murres, as well as a Black Guillemot were also noted zipping by the beach on Saturday.

Blair’s haul at Skaket also included an amazing 92 Northern Fulmars, another winter seabird more likely to be seen from a wave-tossed George’s Bank fishing vessel than from land. These relatives of shearwaters nest in noisy cliff-side colonies in cold northern oceans, especially northern Europe, and many winter around 100-200 miles east of the Cape. The Black-legged Kittiwake, a strictly ocean going gull and another cliff nesting bird of northern oceans, passed Skaket by the hundreds on Saturday.

Not to be outdone by upstart Skaket Beach, Race Point in Provincetown ended up taking the gold for best overall birding during and after the storm, producing no fewer than six species of alcids, including at least one puffin, 47 Dovekies, and 54 Common Murres, along with even fancier sightings like the two Pacific Loons photographed on Thursday. Race Point is the best place in the northeast to see the otherwise scarce arctic-breeding Iceland Gull, and birders tallied an impressive 62 one day last week.  In addition to the seabird show, birders also saw 3 different Snowy Owls, a Bald Eagle, a Peregrine Falcon, and four Common Ravens, predatory species and scavengers looking to capitalize on storm-weakened seabirds along the shoreline.

So, as we brace for yet another round of rain driven by 50 mile per hour gusts, as hardy, winter Cape Codders, I hope you’ll consider leaving the comfy confines of your home and venturing out to a north or west facing beach as the storm passes and it becomes safe to get out there again. It’s your best chance to see offshore birds few ever get the chance to spy from land. And if you do head out, you might as well stay out there, since you probably don’t have power anyway. You don’t have any TV, so why not binge watch the birds?