Winter Birding -November/December 2009

Nantucket is a paridise for winter birding

by: E. Vernon Laux

In ornithological circles, Nantucket is renowned for its winter birding. Far out to sea, surrounded by water that has a moderating influence on temperatures, the island plays host during the winter months to an impressive aggregation of bird life. The birding here in November and December is better than anywhere else in New England. I don’t work

for the Chamber of Commerce, but Nantucket “rocks” for birding at this time of year.

The most impressive bird phenomenon during this season is the daily flight of long-tailed ducks. It is estimated that perhaps 40 percent of the North American breeding population of these Arctic-nesting ducks winter around Nantucket. These beautiful and fastest-flying ducks commute from Nantucket Sound at dawn to shoals 30 to 50 miles south of the island and make a return flight at dusk.

While these may not sound impressive, to see and hear these birds as they fly by en masse, numbering in almost uncountable clouds some 400,000 to a million individual birds as they rocket by is not something one soon forgets. The place to observe this remarkable flight of ducks is at the extreme west end of Nantucket at Smith’s Point in Madaket or Eel Point. For the past couple of years the flight has started on November 12.

The massive flocks continue doing their thing, so to speak, throughout November and December, then beginning in January the flight diminishes until it ceases some time in February. Nowhere else on Earth is there a known movement of sea ducks that fly this far daily in order to obtain food. The birds are taking advantage of a high-quality food resource during these months. They are feeding on pelagic amphipods that occur in staggering concentrations along the western boundaries of the shoals south of the island.

Even if one is not at all interested in birds, seeing this spectacular natural phenomenon is something all residents and people from away should see. The display of huge numbers of ducks, hurtling through the air at 60 miles per hour, calling, the wind whistling through their wings, sounding like a freight train passing nearby, is just fantastic. It is one of the ornithological wonders on Earth and a unique Nantucket experience.

As if the long-tailed duck daily commute was not enough, there is another impressive birding spectacle that occurs on the island during the late fall and winter. The southeast “corner” of the island from Hoicks Hollow to Codfish Park to Low Beach in Sconset has the best “gull show” on the Eastern Seaboard. The often mind-boggling concentrations of gulls, numbering in the tens of thousands of individuals, with many rare species, are generally feeding voraciously right in the surf along the shoreline. This provides outstanding viewing conditions and the opportunity to study this fascinating group of often hard-to-identify species.

Many people don’t realize that there are many different species of gulls, and the taxonomy is constantly changing as we learn more about them. Currently there are 36 species of gulls recognized in the Americas, both North and South. Gulls are tremendously variable and many of the most abundant gulls on Nantucket take four years before they attain their adult plumage.

This means that a common bird like a herring gull or the largest gull species in the world, the great black-backed gull, has a variety of plumages complicating their identification. Gulls replace their wing and tail feathers once a year and generally replace body feathers twice a year. Because they have been carefully studied, we understand the sequence of molt and can accurately age an individual bird until it acquires its adult plumage. After reaching their adult plumage, all that can be ascertained is that it is an adult gull.

The “gull show,” while variable from year to year, almost always consists of a number of gulls that are scarce to rare anywhere else on the Eastern Seaboard. If not familiar with the many species of gulls, grab a field guide as you read along and take a look at them as you go. A real treat is a count in recent years of 100 or more lesser black-backed gulls. This makes Nantucket a great place to see this rare gull species. They are from Europe and are not known to breed on this side of the Atlantic. Due to the number of individuals and age classes found here, it seems inevitable that they are breeding somewhere on this side of the pond but we have yet to find where.

There are also good numbers of Iceland gulls, an all-white gull with white wing-tips often referred to as white-winged gulls. There are more here during the winter months, usually anywhere from 50 to 100 individuals, than anywhere else except around Saint John’s, Newfoundland. Most years there are large flocks, numbering in the thousands of individuals, of delicate Bonaparte’s gulls accompanied by varying numbers of black-headed and little gulls, more European species. The aptly-named little gull is the smallest gull in the world.

The annual Christmas Bird Count is always one of the top counts in New England. It is an attempt to count every bird of every species, in this case on the entire island of Nantucket, in a 24-hour period. While of course this is impossible, it is fun and educational to try. The island is divided into sections and groups are assigned to thoroughly cover that area and explore habitats, neighborhoods and thickets that may not have been visited by birders since the last count.

Many birders come to Nantucket to participate and spend several days. They are particularly enamored of the long-tailed duck flight and the spectacular “gull show.” For many it is reason enough, although the island is exceptionally beautiful at this time of year, with prolonged twilight and awesome sky scenes at dawn and dusk.

Some groups and participants are more hard-core than others. Certain individuals thrive on sleep deprivation and possess a remarkable tolerance for freezing temperatures that enable them to start out at midnight listening for owls and then continue on all day until tramping through a marsh at sunset looking for rails. This is not necessary for many participants and all that is required is a desire to spend time outside, have fun with like-minded individuals and find as many bird species as possible.

The species mix is incredible and many birds that are hard if not impossible to see elsewhere are common during the winter months on Nantucket. The number of local participants and their hospitality bolstered by birders from elsewhere in New England and beyond, make this an eagerly-anticipated annual event. This year the Christmas Bird Count will be conducted on Friday, January 1, New Year’s Day 2010. For more information, call Edie Ray at (508) 228-1693 or e-mail ACKbird@aol.com .

E. Vernon Laux is the resident naturalist at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation.






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