Sunday, September 5, 2010

T.S. Earl delivers!...sort of

After realizing that Earl would not really be affecting CT very much, a few of us decided to head to Cape Cod in search of seabirds. We arrived at First Encounter at dawn on Saturday morning to a strong WNW wind and intermittent horizontal drizzle. The birding began slowly...at first only Common Terns with a handful of Black Terns were moving. Then the weather cleared, visibility improved, and before we knew it, we were in the middle of a very productive sea watch.

Going into today, despite having taken several well-timed pelagics and whale watches out of the northeast, I had not yet seen Sabine's Gull or South Polar Skua. A west coast pelagic would take care of those, but heading into Saturday they were two glaring misses on my life list. I had done a few pelagics, whale watches, and sea watches over the past couple years at times and locations to specifically target them.

On Saturday I got those two birds no more than 15 minutes apart. Marshall Iliff spotted a distant skua that eventually made a fairly close pass. We all had the impression of the uniform cold tones of a SOUTH POLAR SKUA, lacking golden spangling above or warm tones overall. The pending photos should confirm our field identification. Skua identification is often very difficult unless treated with a more extreme or obvious individual, so care should and will be taken before this one goes down in BOLD on my list. But I would expect the photos to back up our field views. Later, a second skua sighting was likely the same bird.

A bit later, I relocated a very distant adult SABINE'S GULL that Blair Nikula had briefly seen earlier. Luckily that bird (or another?) made a much closer pass later in the morning, for all to see.

Other than those two big highlights, we had constant action that included 4 species of shearwater (though I missed the single Sooty), several Parasitic Jaegers, several hundred Red-necked Phalaropes including many great looks, and the 5 expected species of tern. It ended up being a great morning.

It should be noted that this storm did not produce any southern birds for us. This was sorta expected given the position and strength of the storm. Generally, you want to be on the "right" (in this case, east) side of the storm if you don't have a direct hit. We were on the left side, and tropical storm force winds only very briefly brushed the Cape. So Saturday morning's displaced seabirds were birds that would normally be at our latitude at this time of year, but were pushed into Cape Cod Bay by the storm.

Sure enough, the storm dropped a Bridled Tern and Magnificent Frigatebird, plus other southern terns, in Nova Scotia despite its relative weakness by the time it reached that far north. Goes to show you how important the track is.

But nobody at First Encounter was complaining. Getting an identifiable skua from shore is rare enough, and having a steady supply of other seabirds made for an entertaining morning.

On our way back we stopped at the Cumberland Farm Fields in Halifax/Middleboro, MA, where we enjoyed the continuing inland shorebird show. We tallied 15 species of shorebird here including 6 American Golden-Plover, Baird's Sandpiper, 5 Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and a Wilson's Phalarope...plus a few Laughing Gulls.

- Nick

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