Wild Side: Birds from Lee

It wasn’t a great haul, but it wasn’t a bad storm either.


Vineyard birders have a love-hate relationship with tropical storms. Like anybody else, we respect the enormous power of these systems, and dread the damage a direct hit by a strong storm invariably produces. On the other hand, as they head northward, hurricanes can trap tropical birds in their eyes or wind fields, dumping those birds as exciting vagrants hundreds or even thousands of miles from their points of origin.

A number of species occur here only in association with tropical storms, and so birders find themselves hoping we land in the sweet spot: a storm strong enough to deliver good birds, but mild enough to do little damage.

Tropical Storm Lee, then, which passed east of the Island last Saturday, had the full attention of the local birding community. The overall picture, as the storm approached, was not promising. At lower latitudes, Lee was an enormously powerful system, certainly capable of moving large numbers of birds. But it tracked mainly over open ocean, with little time spent close to land, where it would be most likely to entrain birds. And its path northward, which was accurately predicted by the National Weather Service several days in advance, kept it several hundred miles to the east of us.

That path alone tempered a birder’s enthusiasm. The Vineyard was clearly going to escape any winds strong enough to move strong-flying seabirds very far against their will. And on the western side of the storm’s counterclockwise circulation, we would likely only see tropical birds that had been swept in almost a full circle around the vast storm — an unlikely scenario.

Still, you work with what you have, and a number of birders hit the field on Saturday and Sunday in the wake of Lee. We were hoping not just for tropical birds; the storm’s path and the wind direction raised the hope of some southbound migrant seabirds such as jaegers and phalaropes, which typically move far offshore but might be blown our way by a storm like this one.

My own efforts on Saturday included birding State Beach, Katama, and Little Beach in Edgartown. The Beach Road produced virtually nothing except cormorants and gulls, hunkered down in what shelter they could find on Sarson Island. Katama proved a bit better. Several lesser black-backed gulls were roosting on a Katama Farm field with geese and herring gulls. Rare here just a couple of decades ago, lesser black-backed gulls are now regularly present along the south shore. The birds I found were probably local ones that made a short-distance move away from the immediate shoreline to escape the wind and waves.

At Mattakeset Bay, I found a very large flock of laughing gulls feeding on bait fish. A medium-size, dark-back gull, this species is surprisingly hardy: Migrants, which are common around the Vineyard in fall, spend much of their time feeding out at sea. Again, the flock at Mattakeset probably reflected a temporary, short-distance movement by these birds to avoid the worst effects of the storm.

At Little Beach, I found prodigious quantities of weed and shellfish, including both the ubiquitous slipper shells and seed bay scallops, washed up. On the mounds of wrack, 18 inches deep at points, gulls and some of the larger shorebirds, like ruddy turnstones and black-bellied plovers feasted on the bounty. Smaller shorebirds, like least and semipalmated sandpipers, were absent, presumably roosting in sheltered spots in the nearby marsh.

I fared a bit better on Sunday, when I searched up-Island for songbirds driven here by the west winds of the trailing edge of the storm. Sunrise produced a nice pulse of migrants: in a few minutes, I found Cape May and magnolia warblers, a Philadelphia vireo, several bobolinks, a rose-breasted grosbeak, and a notable count of 27 migrating flickers. More birds passed overhead, moving southwest along the Vineyard Sound shoreline, too high for a positive ID, but clearly arriving migrants. But the excitement didn’t last. Migrants had grown sparse when I reached the Aquinnah parking circle, where a group of birders had more or less reproduced my earlier list. And a visit to Menemsha Hills produced few birds at all, even resident ones.

The birder’s assessment of Lee, then, is that the storm produced few if any typical tropical rarities in our region. It did produce some localized, temporary effects as gulls and shorebirds moved to exploit resources created by the storm or avoid the worst of the wind and surf. And the westerly winds trailing the storm after it passed our latitude produced a modest but interesting pulse of migrants, of a type more often associated with cold fronts than with tropical systems.

On the bright side, Vineyard impacts of Lee were largely limited to some beach overwash and erosion, possible loss of harvestable shellfish, and a few small branches hitting the deck. I would have liked a sooty tern! But on balance, dull birding seems like a fair trade for minimal impacts.