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A family trip that became a once in a lifetime birding experience?

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Old Friday 27th May 2005, 23:19   #1
streatham
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A family trip that became a once in a lifetime birding experience?

(a bit long this one - the species list it's at the end)

Hi All,

I just got back from a trip to Cape Cod (MA) my first time back there since my trip to see the fabled-footed Falcon. The wife and I were heading up there for a few days to see her great aunt and grandmother (who had come over from New Mexico). Anyway I had checked the internet to try and find a couple of local woodland areas so that each morning I could head off early and sneak in some birding, trying to locate some late or straggler migrants (Mourning Warbler, YB Fly, OS Fly etc).

Anyway we arrived on the Cape to find that a huge Nor'easter was blowing in making driving conditions precarious to say the least. Waking up Wednesday morning to temperatures almost at zero (in May!!!!!) and misty rain I decided to cut the idea of heading to the local woods and to head for the beach (West Dennis) as it was only a 5 minutes walk down the road and I knew from previous trips that LEAST TERN and PIPING PLOVERS were breeding down there on the sand bars. Anyway I got down there about 6.15am and wandered along the beach scanning the dunes and short grass Marsh and was happily picking off your regular birds: WILLETS were everywhere and especially vocal. On the Marsh side of the road I soon had BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER, LEAST and SEMI-SANDS, SNOWY EGRET, OSPREY, DC CORMS, CANADA and BRANT GEESE. On the dune side I was happily ticking off SAVANNAH SPARROW, SONG SPARROW and had particularly good looks at a few HORNED LARKS which were obviously breeding in amongst the fenced off dunes - one of the males treating me to a display as he took off into the air performing his song.

As I reached the sand spit I spotted more shorebirds along the waters edge and approached closer to investigate. I was greeted by the usual suspects at this time of year, with a number of previously seen shorebirds and a handful of SANDERLINGS. Best of all though was the PIPING PLOVERS wandering the beach and a handful of LEAST TERNS parked up alongside them. I had now run out of beach and was just about to turn for home when I decided to take a peek over the sea wall at the mouth of the river. And there they were spinning like tops, pressed in against the sea wall just feet away 2 RED-NECKED PHALAROPES (a life bird and most unexpected - although they are the more commonly seen from shore of the 2 pelagic phalaropes). They were two absolutely stunning female birds with deep red necks and the most exquisite golden flashes on their backs. No words I can use to describe them would do them justice.

The next moment was a bin dropping one if ever there was. As I sat patiently studying the 2 Red-necks a RED PHALAROPE flew in next to them and joined them feeding. The Red Phalarope is an almost exclusively pelagic bird - I was so excited I could hardly believe this 2 life birds just appearing like this on a completely unplanned birding sortie. Anyway after studying the Red Phalarope for 20 minutes I decided to head home and pass on the news of my exciting and possibly 'major' find. I pretty much ran the whole way and quickly sent off an e-mail to the people who manage MASSBIRD (the local RBA) to let them know of my find.

Anyway after breakfast and some family related activities I got a message back saying thanks and to keep them updated on any other finds that I had. It was only that evening that I happened to glance at MASSBIRD to see if my find had been reported and noticed that my 'major' find had merely been part of an amazing phenomenon. It seems that an almost unheard of May Nor’easter had struck the NE Coast and in selected spots Phalaropes and all sort of other unlikely goodies were showing up along the coast especially at the town beach on the opposite coast to the one I had checked that morning.

I spent as much time as I could over the next day squeezing in sea-watching at Corporation Beach in Dennis. Being from CT sea-watching usually means exactly that – watching the sea and hoping something more interesting than RT Loon or Bufflehead will show up (usually it doesn't so that's why I had so many life birds on the trip). This was amazing though, although the birds changed with the intensity of the storm, over the combined few hours split over two mornings and one afternoon I had at least another 50+ RED-PHALAROPES and almost definitely more RED-NECKED PHALAROPES. Many of the Phalaropes took to actually sitting on the beach or in a small tidal pool behind the beaches main sea wall. As close as you’d ever want to be to a Phalarope (without trying to put them up as they looked so knackered).

Things just got better and better – streams of COMMON LOONS in breeding plumage passed by as did tens of NORTHERN GANNETS. Most of the Gannets were young birds so it was interesting to study the variation in plumage and every now and then pick out a splendidly plumaged adult bird.

I spent my time watching the horizon avidly for the dynamic soaring of something more exciting but hardly needed to be looking out that far as I was soon treated to amazingly close views of another life bird: NORTHERN FULMAR. My bins were a bit trashed from the sea spray by now but I was quickly on this stocky and powerful looking bird as it swooped and soared across the ocean waves. What a majestic bird and so powerful looking. It was an amazing to sea the bird just a few yards over the sea wall as it worked its way up and down the beach giving spectacular looks and highlighting the distinctly whiter inner primaries as it sailed by.

This report could go on for ever and ever as things just got better and better as the hours progressed. Even though my thumbs were starting to feel like frostbite was setting in and I was thoroughly unprepared for the weather I just couldn’t pull myself away. The next half an hour treated me to two more life birds in WILSON’S STORM PETREL and then later LEACH’S STORM PETREL (I gleaned some interesting info on the petrels as I noted that the supposedly distinctive prominent carpal bar of the Leach’s can be easily mistaken for the worn plumage of some of the Wilson’s at this time of year, but thankfully the birds were in so close that identifying the difference in wing-length and shape was fairly simple and once someone had explained to me the difference in flight style it was easy to start to pick them out from each other).

A huge flock of COMMON TERNS had built up fishing just off the sea wall as well (a braver and more experienced birder might have managed to turn a few of them into Arctic – I couldn’t). This flock was soon disrupted by the intervention of a passing Jaeger at first it was all such a commotion that I couldn’t manage to pin down an identification but on subsequent passes (I assume it was the same bird/birds) I managed to get at least one of them pinned down to the more likely PARASITIC JAEGER as opposed to the possible Pomarine (my final life bird of the trip).

Over that afternoon and the next few mornings I had managed to see a host of interesting birds as the winds slowly subsided including: ROSEATE TERNS sitting on the rocks at low tide, a couple of late young BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES, a raft or two of COMMON EIDER, migrating lines of SURF SCOTER and BLACK SCOTER. All in all considering this was a trip in which I hoped to squeeze in a couple of hours of passable birding I had inadvertently stumbled on perhaps a once in a lifetime phenomenon with this amazing coasting (not a word I want to use) of Phalaropes in such fantastic numbers due to an almost unheard of May Nor’easter. It amazes me how good the birding has been on my 3 trips to the Cape and how lucky I got with the timing of my trip this week. I think someone is trying to tell me to spend some more time up there - and after a fun few days with the family I have an open invite to do so.

Luke


Trip Species List (life bird *)

COMMON LOON
NORTHERN FULMAR*
WILSON’S STORM-PETREL*
LEACH’S STORM-PETREL*
NORTHERN GANNET
DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT
SNOWY EGRET
CANADA GOOSE
BRANT
MALLARD
AMERICAN BLACK DUCK
COMMON EIDER
SURF SCOTER
BLACK SCOTER
RED-BREASTED MERGANSER
RED-TAILED HAWK
OSPREY
PEREGRINE FALCON
BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER
SEMIPALMATED PLOVER
PIPING PLOVER
SPOTTED SANDPIPER
GREATER YELLOWLEGS
WILLET
RUDDY TURNSTONE
SANDERLING
SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER
LEAST SANDPIPER
RED-NECKED PHALAROPE*
RED PHALAROPE*
PARASITIC JAEGER*
JAEGER sp
BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE
LAUGHING GULL
RING-BILLED GULL
HERRING GULL
GREATER BLACK-BACKED GULL
COMMON TERN
ROSEATE TERN
LEAST TERN
ROCK PIGEON
MOURNING DOVE
BELTED KINGFISHER
RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER
DOWNY WOODPECKER
NORTHERN FLICKER
GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER
BLUE JAY
AMERICAN CROW
FISH CROW
HORNED LARK
TREE SWALLOW
BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE
TUFTED TITMOUSE
HOUSE WREN
AMERICAN ROBIN
GRAY CATBIRD
EUROPEAN STARLING
YELLOW WARBLER
PINE WARBLER
COMMON YELLOWTHROAT
NORTHERN CARDINAL
CHIPPING SPARROW
SONG SPARROW
SAVANNAH SPARROW
BALTIMORE ORIOLE
RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD
COMMON GRACKLE
BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD
HOUSE SPARROW
AMERICAN GOLDFINCH
HOUSE FINCH
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Old Friday 27th May 2005, 23:40   #2
Katy Penland
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Wow, Luke, what a wonderful time you had even if you practically froze to death doing it! Thanks for the great report! I'd've had a few lifers there myself and would kill for a Red Phalarope. Red-necks are common off LA but have yet to see the Red. Had to come to a waste water treatment pond here in Arizona to see a Wilson's!! Next time you go to the Cape, can I meet you there?
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Old Friday 27th May 2005, 23:52   #3
streatham
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Thanks Katy,

I'm still on a real high from the whole trip - how sad I must admit I always thought sea-watching was kind of for lunatics (especially as there are no hides in the US that I know of) but now I am completly sold on the concept. I'll mail you when it's time to start packing your bags in fall for the trip to Monomoy and Chatham South Beach

Luke
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Old Saturday 28th May 2005, 00:19   #4
Larry Lade
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Luke, sounds like you really had a fantastic birding day! I am envious of you for getting the RED PHALAROPE. I have yet to see this bird! I have even gone on a pelagic trip out of Westport, Washington. To no avail.

I was able to get a Red-necked Phalarope in among the Wilson's over at Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas last weekend. I have only seen the Red-necked a couple of times. It is a little unusual to get them here in the midwest.

Congrats on a great trip!
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Old Saturday 28th May 2005, 02:00   #5
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Nice one, Luke...talk about the-right-place-at-the right-time!
Some really good birds on your list, congratulations.
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Old Saturday 28th May 2005, 13:17   #6
Valerie
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Hi Luke...

I had a visit to Cape Cod and Boston about 4 years ago and have been thinking about going back as I love America but hate the long flights across to the west. I am new to birding so thinking back I don't recall seeing any at all !!!!! (Shock, horror - I know).

Went right down to Princetown and watched a "parade"..... I do remember that.... you will probably know what type I am referring to.... very interesting it was (and fun).

Thanks for your report... I have copied it and saved it incase I do decide to go back.

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Old Sunday 29th May 2005, 13:07   #7
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Were there no cetaceans in view when scanning out to sea?

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