Mystery Birds on Nantucket

Brant Point

It’s just a bowl-shaped pile of sand left behind by the retreating glacier at the end of the last Ice Age. I visited the island off the coast of Massachusetts recently, and of course found it to be more than a geological afterthought. In fact, Nantucket, the prior home of whalers, has become a tourist destination for humans and a popular layover site for migrating birds. Some, birds and humans, have set up permanent housekeeping on the picturesque island, and I’m fortunate to know a couple of the human variety.

American Crows, Corvus brachyrhynchos

When we arrived the island was still abuzz about the recent sighting of a rarity; a Gray Heron and record new bird for the state. The first time this species was seen in North America was on the Pribilofs of Alaska in 2007, with later appearances in Newfoundland and the Caribbean. What makes the sighting even more unlikely was the astute birder; Skyler Kardell, an eighteen year-old working as a costal steward at the Tuckernuck Land Trust.

Sankaty Head Light

He could have easily dismissed the bird as just another of our common Great Blue Herons, since the Gray Heron is very similar. I know that I would have just ticked another GBH and moved on. But the young birder felt the bird was a little paler and the neck, bill, and legs slightly shorter than those of the Great Blue. Luckily he took pictures and presented them to the “Birding Gods” who concurred with his rare find.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

As you can imagine this led to a feeding frenzy of birders wishing to view the rarity and add it to their state or U.S. lists. Flight shots of the bird showed a missing flight feather. Some impressive observer recollected an earlier sighting of a similar bird last summer in Nova Scotia, missing that same feather. Subsequent views of the bird, presumably a vagrant from Europe, with the missing feather were recorded in Chincoteague, Virginia, likely during its migration to warmer climes. Mystery solved.

A Sconset cottage

My professional training was as a radiologist; an observer of fine details, small deformities and deviations from normal anatomy that may presage serious disease. I remember being chastised as a budding resident physician by a professor for jumping to conclusion before considering other less likely diagnoses. I’m still doing that as a birder, forty years later.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus

Andy and I were birding near Madaket at the western end of Nantucket last week. It was a beautiful Indian summer day, which unfortunately also brought out the mosquitoes and probably some ticks as well. We were trudging across one of the island’s vast, undeveloped moors when I spotted a bird perched on a distant shrub. It was too big for another of the ubiquitous Song Sparrows that we were seeing.

Merlin, Falco columbarius

We crept closer, stopping to take shots every several strides, me with my 400mm and Andy with his cannon-like 800mm lens. I declared it to be an American Kestrel, but Andy was not so sure. He favored Merlin, pointing out some markings that I had dismissed. As you know these falcons are quite similar with a female Kestrel about the same size as a male Merlin. The bird spooked before we could get a good picture, and we debated the issue as we returned to the car. But just as we were pulling away the same bird flew by and perched on a roadside post close by.

Colleague with the 800mm

I fired away from the passenger-side window, while Andy quietly snuck out and got a much better view with the sun at his back, allowing a pleasing bokeh background. He flaunted the risk of Lyme Disease and Eastern Equine Encephalitis to get that perfect shot. The posing bird seemed unusually comfortable with us so close. I took fewer shots from the car, but enough to realize that once again I had spoken too soon; it was a Merlin.

Andy’s Merlin

The lesson is that first impressions and intuition are often wrong. But I’m in good company. We thought the Earth was flat for eons and up until 100 years ago we assumed that the Milky Way was the entirety of our universe. Both wrong, making my mistaken Kestrel pale in comparison.

Sanderlings, Calidris alba

I suspect our favorite place to bird on Nantucket is at Great Point, a long sandy spit projecting northward from the far eastern edge of the island and punctuated by an old abandoned lighthouse. Getting there is a bit of an adventure requiring a four-wheel drive, half deflated tires, and some perseverance to follow the rutted paths through the loose sand until finally reaching the hard packed beach. The best birding there is with frequent stops along the breaking surf, positioning the car to get shots out the window, while keeping a wary eye on the rising tide.

Lesser Black-backed Gull, Larus fuscus

There were no unusual birds sighted that day, but it’s always fun debating the leg color of the gulls; are they yellow or pink? Is that a Lesser Black-backed or Herring Gull. And the scampering Sanderlings are entertaining as they run from the waves like frolicking children. In the evening there is the enjoyable task of reviewing and sorting the hundreds of pictures to find the few “keepers”. On that day the scenery shots almost outnumbered the birds. And even better, the prospect of dinner with friends at one of Nantucket’s finest restaurants was a perfect punctuation of another good day. Life is sweet.

Great Point, Nantucket

In closing, let me pass on this personal note. I’ve started another blog, this one about my resurrected hobby of astronomy, now adding an astrophotography flavor. You can check out “Night Skies” at http://www.nightskies.blog and click on the word “blog” to see the first post, “A Shot in the Dark”. I’m not closing out this birding blog, but you might notice that the postings are a little less frequent. I’m just filling out the entire 24-hour rotation of the Earth; you cannot photograph birds at night or stars during daylight. But in other respects the two avocations are quite similar, both using optics to observe and record the fascinating and vast universe we inhabit.

8 thoughts on “Mystery Birds on Nantucket

  1. I have been away for a few days and am delighted to find this wonderful narrative on my return. Your descriptions are beautifully evocative – and I can strongly empathise with the mistaken identity of birds, especially when seen from beyond the comfort zone.

    Liked by 2 people

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