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Northern Lapwing Visits Cape Cod

Dear Bird Folks,

For the past two weeks you have written about some exotic birds that have been found in our area. I’m wondering if Sandy, last week’s mammoth and sadly, devastating storm, produced any more unusual birds.

– Todd, Harwich, MA


Okay, Todd,

I’ll write one more column about strange birds turning up around here, but this will have to be the last one for a while. If I don’t write a column about cardinals, bluebirds or some other comfort bird soon, there could be riots in the streets. Sure, I can get away with talking about a freak bird every once in a while, but three weeks in a row is pushing it. Eventually, I’ll have to get back to basics. It’s like going out to fancy restaurants too often. Occasionally eating gourmet food is fun, but ultimately a simple slice of pizza is all we really need in life. How’s that for deep thought?

This week’s surprise Cape Cod bird is a Northern Lapwing…from Europe! No one is really sure, Todd, if the massive storm had anything to do with the lapwing’s arrival, but since it appeared the day after Sandy left town, I’m going to pretend it did. It’s more exciting this way. In addition to Europe, lapwings are also found in Africa and Asia. Until the other day, only two of these birds have ever been sighted in Massachusetts. Then, in a single day, that number jumped from two to five. I’ll explain more about that later.

Tuesday, the day after Sandy’s departure, most folks were home either cleaning up the mess in the yard or screaming at the power companies. But birders were out doing what birders do, looking for any surprise avian visitors Sandy may have brought with her. But being the dedicated shopkeeper that I am, I was at work (plus, I didn’t want to deal with the mess in my yard). Just after lunch I started talking with a young birder who was here shopping with his younger son. We were chatting about the storm when the guy’s cell phone rang. A Northern Lapwing had been spotted at First Encounter Beach in Eastham (MA). The young birder grabbed his younger son and headed out the door. At this point I became conflicted. I was excited to hear about the rare bird, but I wasn’t happy that the news had interrupted this guy’s shopping. I hate when people stop shopping for any reason, but I decided to put that behind me and followed the guy out the door to look for the bird myself.

When I got to First Encounter Beach there was wall of local birders, all of whom were focused on the bird. It amazes me how quickly these people can arrive at a rare sighting. It’s like they have access to a secret transporter room. I am only four miles away and yet I was the last one to arrive. (Stopping to buy the newspaper, just so I could read my horoscope, probably slowed me down a little, but still…) As I walked toward the group a few of them turned and yelled, “April Fool.” (I get that a lot.) But the joke was on them. It was October, not April. Stupid birders.

Northern Lapwings are everything birders, and non-birders, want in a rare bird. They are fairly large, distinctive birds with a definite Euro flair to them. They have green-ish black backs, white bellies and funky plumes sticking out of the tops of their heads. They also aren’t shy. Lapwings are extra-big plovers that spend their lives feeding in open fields or on mudflats. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this particular lapwing opted to settle on a sandbar, which, due to the huge high tide, was about a quarter mile from shore. The bird was a bit too far away to really appreciate. Even through a spotting scope the bird was nothing more than a dot, and through binoculars it was basically a rumor. As we stood there hoping the bird would fly closer us, it took to the air. We thought, “Sweet! Here it comes.” But instead of coming closer, the bird headed in the opposite direction, disappeared over the horizon and was not seen again. Nuts!

Even though the view of the lapwing wasn’t what we’d hoped for, the day was still productive. In the short time we were on the beach we were treated to great sightings of a few other notable passing birds. The names of some of these birds might not mean much to backyard bird watchers, but the hardcore birders were thrilled. The list included American Pipits, American Bitterns, Lapland Longspurs, Eastern Meadowlarks, a lone Arctic Tern and a flock of ten Cattle Egrets, which was the largest flock ever seen on Cape Cod. How about that? (It doesn’t take much to get birders excited.)

In some cases, it was Sandy’s powerful winds that helped deliver these uncommon birds to our area, but other birds simply became visible when they were forced out of the marshes by the super-high tides. The freaky thing about this rare sighting in Eastham is that on the same day, not one, but two more Northern Lapwings were spotted on Nantucket. In the history of birding records, only two of these foreign birds have ever been seen in this state. Having three lapwings in the state on the very same day is an avian miracle. (Like I said, it doesn’t take much to get birders excited.)

That’s it for gourmet birds, Todd. I swear I’ll write about a more familiar bird next. I can’t do that right now, though. It’s time for lunch and suddenly I feel like having a simple slice of pizza.