Birds

Nantucket hosts a rich assemblage of bird diversity, with observations of over 360 bird species having been documented on the island. Numerous breeding, wintering and year-round resident species occur here due to the varied and often rare habitat types. The island’s offshore location also makes it an important stop-over site for migrants- in particular, shrublands and forests in close proximity to the coast provide important shelter, feeding and resting sites for songbirds passing through the island during the spring and fall migration. Several species of birds of prey nest here, including Cooper’s hawk, red-tailed hawk, merlin and osprey. Birds associated with open habitat types that are relatively uncommon in this region are regularly observed in the grasslands, heathlands and shrublands, including the eastern towhee, savannah sparrow, eastern kingbird, killdeer, common yellowthroat, American woodcock and prairie warbler. Coastal beaches, dunes and wetlands provide important habitat for shorebirds and colonial waterbirds such as the piping plover, American oystercatcher, great and snowy egrets, and multiple species of terns, gulls and sandpipers.

Below are brief descriptions of some of Nantucket’s bird peciess – click on the individual photos for more detailed information.

Bird's Name Details
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American Oystercatcher

The American oystercatcher is a common sight on Nantucket’s beaches, tidal flats, and salt marshes. This large, conspicuous shorebird has a long, bright orange bill, bright yellow eyes, and sharply-contrasting brown, black and white plumage. Its preferred prey is mollusks (including oysters), marine worms, and shellfish obtained while feeding along the shoreline and tidal flats.

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American Woodcock

The American woodcock is one of Nantucket’s most distinctive-looking birds, with its stout, chunky body shape, long bill, and large eyes set high and far back on the head. This shorebird frequents forests and shrublands interspersed with patches of open habitat. It feeds in these areas by extracting insects from the soil using its uniquely specialized bill, which has a flexible upper mandible.

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Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper’s hawks are crow-sized birds of prey that are highly adapted to woodland habitats. They prey on song birds and small mammals and are capable of tight maneuvering between dense, narrowly-spaced tree trunks at amazing speeds while hunting. This species has become more common on Nantucket during the past several decades, and now regularly breeds here.

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Eastern Kingbird

The eastern kingbird is a common resident of Nantucket’s open grasslands and heathlands during the spring through early fall. Kingbirds are in the flycatcher family. As the name implies, they are insectivores and are capable of complicated aerial maneuvers to capture their prey.

Eastern-Towhee-male-perched--by-Vern-Laux

Eastern Towhee

The eastern towhee (formerly known as the rufus-sided towhee, chewink, or red-eyed towhee) is a common summer resident of Nantucket’s grasslands and shrublands.

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Long-Tailed Duck

This mid-sized sea duck is one of Nantucket’s most numerous off-shore winter residents. Formerly known as Oldsquaw, this species breeds in the high Arctic and spends the winter off the coast of Nantucket, feeding primarily on small crustaceans that are abundant at that time of year. Long-tailed ducks are even capable of diving up to 60 meters to capture their prey!

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Northern Harrier

The northern harrier (formally known as the marsh hawk) is a rare bird of prey that inhabits Nantucket’s grasslands, heathlands, shrublands and wetlands.

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Osprey

Osprey, also known as fish hawks, are one of Nantucket’s most iconic birds of prey. They nest predominantly on platforms erected adjacent to beaches and ponds. Although dead trees can serve as naturally-occurring nest sites, this species seems to prefer artificial structures such as nest platforms, cell phone towers, channel markers and utility poles.

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Snowy and Great Egret

Snowy and great egrets are brilliant white wading birds that can be regularly observed in Nantucket’s coastal wetlands during the spring through late fall. Snowy egrets are smaller that great egrets, and have a black bill and legs, with bright yellow feet. Great egrets are noticeably larger, with black legs and feet and a bright yellow bill.

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Tree Swallow

Tree swallows arrive in New England in April where they nest readily in tree cavities or nest boxes provided by people. Although primarily insectivorous, they also consume berries, a behavior that helps them survive when there are less than favorable hunting conditions. As fall approaches, they congregate in large flocks and night roosts often numbering into the thousands.