On the day after Christmas, a select team of vigilant observers began their work, combine the entirety of the rural 1.4 square mile island of Tuckernuck in search of everything avian as part of the 37th Tuckernuck Christmas Bird Count. An impressive sixty-three species were tallied within a 24-hour period, whereas a “good” winter outing on Tuckernuck might bring about fifty-odd species.
Few people would be willing to drive the six hours from New York City to Hyannis on Christmas Day, then proceed to take a rocky two-hour long boat ride to Nantucket, only to hop on another, smaller vessel and brave at least a mile of chilling rip and shoals to arrive on an island lacking contact or sufficient service. But then again, there are few people as passionate about birds as Dr. Richard Veit, a pony-tailed, middle-aged biology professor living in New York City.
Regarded as one of New England’s finest birders, Veit kept his hobby as a naturalist spending summers on Tuckernuck and has become a full-fledged ornithologist working at the University of Staten Island. His book, The Birds of Massachusetts, is a staple of every serious New England birder’s library.
In his raspy, rumbling bass voice not unlike that of singer Tom Waits, Veit boasts his success with initiating and continuing the Tuckernuck Christmas Bird Count, an event which was, “started in 1978… only [having] missed it three times, all because of impassable ice.”
Along with Michael Taylor, Veit hosts the participants of the Christmas Bird Count and even goes so far with his generosity as to pay for half of the $100 round-trip boat fee for everyone taking rides over with the Souza brothers.
In previous years, the crew has been comprised of only a handful of acclaimed individuals, like Shai Mitra and Simon Perkins. This year is, however, nine of the impressive twelve observers were able to tough it out both nights. The other three either stayed a single night, or came over for just the day.
The majority of the team consists of college-aged students, some of whom have studied under Veit at Staten Island and have pursued a career in biology. Ella Potenza arrived with Veit from New York City on Christmas Day. It is not unusual for the two to travel together, and living just a block away from each other in the city allows them to carpool to school often. Libby Buck and Shea Fee are representatives from the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and Trustees of Reservations, respectively. Matthew Fuirst, who researched the dispersal methods of Herring Gulls in isolated areas, used Tuckernuck as a focal-point for his graduate thesis. Other familiar faces include Allison Black, Nick Bonomo, Neal Foley, Ginger Andrews, Burton Balkind, Tucker Taylor, and his father, Michael Taylor.
“Tuckernuck is a really interesting place… the geology is a little different…. The hill on the little kettle pond… it’s kind of its own world,” says Maria Mitchell Association resident ornithologist, Ginger Andrews, who attended the count for just the day, arriving on a 6:30 am boat and leaving by 3:15 pm.
Andrews still has the framed picture of a Yellow-nosed Albatross that flew by Veit’s cottage on Bigelow’s Point one sunny morning in late May, which he had given to her mother as a 90th birthday present. “I love birding anywhere. Any chance I get to go with Richard Veit is a great learning opportunity for me,” she remarks wistfully.
In some years, Veit will actually find the time within the 24-hour count period to take a group over to Muskeget, briefly surveying the land birds there. However, this will not be one of those years, and Crocker Snow’s cabin stands still on the horizon, the only structure still standing on the smallest island of this archipelago.
As first light waxed, Cape Poge Lighthouse on Chappaquiddick became visible from where Veit stood on Bigelow’s Point. On the other end of the island, Nick Bonomo and the others were watching a similar seascape from Whale’s Point, with Esther’s Island and Nantucket in the background.
Having spent the first few hours of the day examining the morning flight of seabirds, the two groups steadily made their way inland to bird the mixed oak and pitch pine forest that exists at the heart of the island. Using the LaFarge’s house as a barrier for separating the two territories, the goal was to leave no area of the island overlooked. From the West, the team managed to snag Orange-crowned Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Great Cormorant, and Eastern Meadowlark the count. By the time the two groups conjurned at The Meeting House for the final tally, the team in the East had scored Short-eared Owl, Thick-billed Murre, Hairy Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, and White-breasted Nuthatch.
Significant “misses” for the count included some of the quintessential “backyard birds” that may inhabit your feeder at home, but were noticeably absent that day and are generally uncommon on Tuckernuck in the winter due to lack of food sources. The American Goldfinch and Mourning Dove could not be found anywhere, and the omnipresent House Sparrow and American Coot of the bigger island were also nowhere to be seen, but these are both species that are exceedingly rare on Tuckernuck.
Early the next morning, the small crowd of remaining guests began to assemble at the makeshift pier located on the East lagoon. With the wind beginning to gust, people were desperate to start their exodus. For the next several days, Tuckernuck would be abandoned while a ferocious winter storm passed over. The white caps on the shoals indicated that the return journey would not be a pleasant one. The alternative was being trapped on the tiny island. From the shore, Veit waved out at the boats quickly vanishing into a thick morning fog. Six hours later, and even he too would be forced to leave.
By Skyler Kardell