Previously I'd mentioned in "Nomads of the North" that large storms can bring in birds not usually seen in our area. Recent hurricane Sandy was a storm of unprecedented size, bringing four European Northern Lapwings to the Massachusetts coast. Lapwings, as they are known in the British Isles, migrate from Europe to North Africa in the fall.
The Northern Lapwing is a member of the plover family. It forages in grassy fields and is under habitat pressure due to changes in farming practices. It is a ground nester, similar to our killdeer, scrapping a nest out on the bare ground, often in a cultivated field, and laying a clutch of 3-4 speckled eggs. These little birds fiercely defend their nests, even holding off larger animals such as cows and horses.
For me the most interesting thing about lapwings is their visual appeal. With their high contrast markings, dark peaked crown and striped face, there's nothing like them found around here. So when a couple showed up on Nantucket after the storm, they made quite a stir. The last time a Northern Lapwing was seen in Massachusetts was on Martha's Vineyard in December of 1996.
So how did these European birds come to be in Massachusetts? Obviously they were carried in by Sandy's storm winds, but that doesn't really tell the whole story. Sandy, like all storms, was a low pressure system. Think of it as a whirlpool in the atmosphere like the whirlpool that forms when you pull the plug in the bathtub. The winds circulate counter-clockwise around the center, or eye, of the storm. For those of us north of the eye, this means the winds blow from east to west or from the ocean onto the shore.
We all heard about Sandy's devastating storm surge. This was an effect of the easterly winds driving the ocean westward onto the shoreline. But even this wasn't the whole story. North of Sandy sat a high pressure system. High pressure systems have winds that flow clockwise, opposite from those of Sandy. This means that the winds on the southern side of the high flow from east to west in the same direction as Sandy's northern edge.
Like another perfect storm, the winds of the high pressure system joined forces with Sandy creating a single force that drove everything before it. It was probably this that trapped our Lapwings, pulling them across the Atlantic and depositing them in Nantucket.
So when the Lapwings showed up on Nantucket, it was a rare event indeed, and birders flocked to the island to gawk. But I wasn't looking for a ferry ride to the island, so I waited to see what would happen. And then a couple more Northern Lapwings were seen on the mainland in Southeastern Massachusetts. But as luck would have it, I couldn't go. I was otherwise occupied looking at the havoc Sandy had wrought along the Connecticut coast.
But one bird continued to frequent a spent corn field in Bridgewater even after I returned to Massachusetts. So when I had the chance, I set out to find this bird. Finding the field proved easier than I thought. Driving down a back road in Bridgewater, I saw dozens of cars pulled over and a vast array of spotting scopes lining the field's edge. The paparazzi had already arrived. It was an organized madhouse. People had flown in from around the country. It was a "Big Year" event. Yes, those people are real. The one who'd come the farthest was in from Hawaii, visiting for the holidays.
I was happy to have help finding the bird. It was very hard to spot, blending seamlessly into the corn stubble in the field. It was also far off and often partly obscured by the slight rise in the field. I'm not sure I'd have found it without help.
But dozens of observers don't make a good set-up for getting close enough for pictures. Not surprisingly, people who've traveled for hours aren't enthusiastic about someone stalking their quarry trying to get close. And this bird wasn't particularly cooperative, keeping its distance and spooking easily.
So I watched and waited until most people had had their fill. It was late in the afternoon and cooling off. The bird was up-sun and had been a silhouette in the back-lighting. But now it wasn’t even visible, having tucked in behind the rise. So when I asked the few remaining observers if they'd mind if I tried to get closer, there was no objection.
I didn't approach directly, but rather on a tangent. When I finally was able to see over the rise, there was no bird. Scanning the field, I found it had moved move than a football field on down the corn rows. I tried to get around it again, but was never successful. Birds aren't dumb. They don't really want to be looking into the sun at some stalker. So I settled for the best backlit shot I could get and moved away, satisfied that I had an image with which to remember this distinctive little plover.