It’s the Season for Bird Watching on Cape Cod
Even if all bird songs sound like so much twitter, a trip to this area may make at least a temporary bird watcher out of you.
From April to November, Cape Cod, that narrow forearm and fist curving into the Atlantic from Buzzard’s Bay to Provincetown, resembles a major airport hub for migrating birds.
The spring migration passes swiftly. By June, sea birds and shore birds have reached their northernmost breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra or the rocky shores of Maine and Newfoundland. Meanwhile, many songbirds have taken off for more northern woods. And herons may be nesting in some inland marsh or pond.
In high summer, between the rushes of spring and fall, the shores and salt marshes remain alive with local nesters. The fall migration begins as early as the end of June.
Southward the Falcons
By August the southward journey of shore and sea birds has shifted into high gear, to peak in September. At the same time, hawks are heading south, as are falcons (merlins and the endangered peregrines) in pursuit of their natural prey, the songbirds.
By October, great flocks of ducks and geese arrive.
As soon as I reach my cottage near the salt marsh I grab my binoculars. First I pause in the front yard just as the bobwhites and their young parade across the sandy clearing.
Then, especially if it’s low tide, I check out the assortment of plovers, sandpipers, egrets, gulls and clam diggers at our strip of beach on Cape Cod Bay.
After this preview I head north to the 700-acre Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. In the tops of the pines that screen the parking lot from the salt marsh, a convention of warblers is in progress.
The yellow-breasted birds seem to be playing a game of musical branches, constantly shifting in some mysterious system of rotation.
Unfortunately the identification of warblers, like that of sandpipers, still eludes me. Are these myrtle or magnolia, prairie, pine or palm? My friend, a serious birder, reminds me that it’s the aptly named pine warblers that nest and spend most of their lives in these conifers.
The similar prairie and palm warblers are also yellow-breasted, but they nest much closer to the ground and have streaked instead of solid breasts.
On this morning Erma J. Fisk, known locally as Jonnie, an 82-year-old amateur ornithologist and naturalist, is giving one of her famous bird-banding demonstrations.
When all the birds are gone Fisk leads her audience to the mist nets that are used to trap her birds early in the morning.
Meanwhile, we set off to hike the 1 1/2-mile loop of Goose Pond Trail, which passes through the major habitats of the sanctuary.
On Noisy Pond
Just beyond the first bend in the trail is a long, narrow pond. Bordered by cattails, spicy-scented sweet pepperbush, various wildflowers and the ubiquitous poison ivy, the pond provides a freshwater environment for the redwing blackbird and the common yellowthroat.
You can hear the constant “witchety, witchety” of this rarely seen warbler even during the midday quiet hour for birds.
On the boardwalk across the tidal flat at Goose Pond is a viewing scope set up by a naturalist leading a bird hike. Hordes of shore birds, ducks and geese gather there to forage.
We are hoping to catch the whimbrel, a brownish shore bird up to 19 inches long, with the distinctive three- to four-inch curved bill that marks it as a curlew.
In the 19th Century clouds of whimbrels, like many other now-scarce shore birds, flew over the East Coast at migration time. But they were hunted almost to extinction. Thanks to stronger protective laws, they have partially recovered, and they generally stop off in Wellfleet each year.
We pass from the pine woods to the shore of Wellfleet Bay and squish through the marsh grass to Try Island. A platform on a low rise commands a fine view of the bay.
The sky is as full of wings as the bay of sails. Marsh hawks hang almost motionless. Gulls soar. Herons flap by with their necks folded up their backs. Lower, terns skim and dive, while flocks of shore birds keep landing, then rise suddenly to swoosh down again not far away.
A flock of large gray-brown birds with a sort of flecked pattern on their backs sweep low over the marsh and settle on one of the mud flats. Their long bills have the identifying downward curve.
At last we return to the beach and follow the final circle of Goose Pond Trail across an upland meadow. All the common native songbirds live in these fields and in the locust woods that lead back to the north shore of Goose Pond.
Cape Cod National Seashore provides a full seasonal program of nature walks and lectures, some of them focused on birds.
Top of the List
Two expeditions within its boundaries top my list. The first is a bicycle ride down to the ocean at Coast Guard Beach, early in the morning by way of a beautiful trail that begins behind the Salt Pond Visitors Center in Eastham.
A few surfers and joggers share the sand with the birds and me. Behind a fenced-off stretch between the beach and the salt marsh, the nesting common terns are protected from the disruptions of man and the gulls that try to take over their nesting sites.
The beach has been shortened considerably since 1979 when a winter storm sliced off a large chunk. It also carried away the Outermost House, where naturalist Henry Beston spent a year in the 1920s observing the life on the dunes and wrote a book about it.
I have come to observe the phalanxes of small, plump rusty-brown sanderlings rush down after the receding waves like windup toys. All kinds of sandpipers peep and feed nearby.
When I approach they rise as if on cue and fly in formation to another wave’s edge. Meanwhile, the gulls sail endlessly on the air currents or stand in lines on the beach, waiting. Cormorants skim low over the waves with their necks up, and the terns divebomb their hapless prey. Behind their cries I hear only the insistent, muffled roar of the waves.
At dusk we head for Hemenway Landing on Nauset Marsh in Eastham, next to the Fort Hill area of the national seashore. Eyes fixed to binoculars, a few silent watchers try to discern the tall gangly figure of the great blue heron from the stands of beach grass.
After posing motionless with its slender neck tucked in or stretched straight up, this grayish-blue bird will suddenly stab into the marsh with its wicked blade of bill and grasp some unlucky frog, fish or other tasty morsel of sea life. Then the bird will walk deliberately, delicately, to another spot.
When the light grows very dim the herons begin to take off, flapping their long wings, and head toward the trees. Meanwhile, from the perches where they have roosted all day, flocks of black-crowned night herons launch themselves from their trees and circle in over the marsh to continue the steady attack on marine fauna.
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Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, off West Road, South Wellfleet, Mass. 02663, (617) 349-2615. Admission: $3 adults, $1 children. Open every day in the summer, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. A wide range of hikes and slide lectures are free with admission.
There are also programs requiring reservations, and additional fees for cruises in Nauset Marsh and Pleasant Bay, day camps and visits to the National Wildlife Refuge on Monomoy Island.
Cape Cod National Seashore. Most hikes originate at two visitor centers: Salt Pond Visitor Center, Eastham, Mass. 02642, (617) 255-3421, or Provincelands Visitor Center, Race Point Road, Provincetown, Mass. 02657, (617) 487-1256.
Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, Drawer R, Massachusetts GA, Brewster, Mass. 02631, (617) 896-3867. Persons interested in nature should enjoy the displays and programs there.
Ashumet Holly Reservation, 286 Ashumet Road, East Falmouth, Mass. 02536, (617) 563-6390. Those planning to be on the Upper Cape will want to check Massachusetts Audubon Society’s other facility here.
Bird Watcher’s General Store, Massachusetts 6A, Orleans, Mass. 02653, (617) 255-6874. Birders or their friends and family should drop in on this unusual shop, one of the few in the nation devoted exclusively to bird enthusiasts.
The store offers more than 50 kinds of bird feeders, 12 kinds of bird seed, a variety of birdbaths, guides to birds in foreign lands, binoculars for sale and rent, and innumerable bird-related gifts. Open every day in season, otherwise closed Sunday and Monday.