Birds of a Feather
In the autumn, Cape Cod is a birdwatcher’s paradise.
Last September, Mike O’Connor’s endless curiosity about the bird world and hunger for surprise sent him to Sandy Neck Beach in Barnstable, a birding locale that rarely disappoints. What winged creatures on this fall day would be making their way along the long stretch of sand as they eventually head further south, like so many (human) snowbirds?
O’Connor, who’s been birding for years and loves to tell avian stories at his Bird Watcher’s General Store in Orleans, was certainly going to have one to tell after this day. As he made his way over the dunes, he noticed thousands of birds suddenly filling the sunless sky. Like so many flying insects, they seemed to blanket the heavens. But these were not creatures from some angry biblical passage—far from it. They were tree swallows—small songbirds whose iridescent green color gives them a look of jewel stones. But en masse, they appeared to be something much different.
“It almost looks like smoke it’s so thick,” O’Connor recalls. “It would look like a swarm of locusts, almost, because there are so many of them. But they’re silent.”
The tree swallow migration in the fall is just one of the extraordinary Cape birding experiences marking summer’s end and winter’s approach. The species is among many that show up here from more northern climes on their way to Florida, and Central and South America. Their presence excites outdoor enthusiasts and even the most seasoned birders like O’Connor.
“The rest of the world doesn’t even know what’s going on and you can hit these pockets of birds,” O’Connor says of his tree swallow experience. “It’s a little bit serendipitous, but it happens. For the average person, it’s almost mind-boggling.”
The Cape’s hooked shape jutting out into the sea and its propensity for ocean storms make it prime birding territory. Throw in acres of conservation land (the Cape Cod National Seashore alone encompasses 44,600 acres), hundreds of kettle ponds and salt marshes as well as its location along hundreds of species’ migratory routes, and you’ve got a birder’s paradise.
“The Cape is an important refueling stop for birds and sometimes a bit of a trap for birds,” O’Connor explains. “That’s why it’s good to go birding on the Cape.”
In addition to migrating songbirds like tree swallows, many of which actually begin their departure from the Cape in July and August, shorebirds also are headed south, and the months of September and October are the ideal time for watching them, says Bob Prescott, director of the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
Hot spots for viewing shorebirds, like plovers, oystercatchers, and sandpipers, include Nauset Marsh, Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, South Beach in Chatham, and the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. Look for the American oystercatcher, with its distinctive large orange bill, pink legs, black head, and brown-and-white body, on mussel beds enjoying shellfish. Sandpipers and plovers sometimes flock together but can be distinguished from each other by their foraging behavior, local naturalist Peter Trull notes in his book, An Illustrated Guide to the Common Birds of Cape Cod. Plovers find their food using their sight—walking, stopping, and pecking. But sandpipers use their sense of touch as they probe the sand and feed as they walk.
Any birder worth his binoculars knows that the best time to go birding on Cape Cod is after a storm. That’s when pelagic birds, like shearwaters and storm petrels, which spend much of their lives over the open ocean, get blown inland around Cape Cod Bay, O’Connor explains. So birders flock to First Encounter Beach in Eastham and Sandy Neck Beach in Barnstable and Sandwich, where the birds linger just offshore.
These oceanic birds seen around Cape waters nest in the islands in the South Atlantic and Antarctic regions. Their feet are positioned toward the rear of their bodies, which inhibits their ability to take off from land but makes them excellent divers. They are powerful fliers, able to stay aloft for hours, and when they rest they float on the water.
The northern gannet is one particularly entertaining seabird. Given its large size—it grows up to 39 inches tall and is the largest of the gannet family—and its distinctive white body and black wing tips, it’s easy to spot off shore. It plunges beak-first from up to 130 feet, feeding on fish and squid. Watching a flock dive-bombing is reminiscent of seeing little kids do perfect cannonballs in a swimming pool—the energy and determination are palpable.
While the osprey might be one of the most common raptors—or birds of prey, which hunt from the air—flying through the Cape skies from March to October, another raptor species, falcons, is spotted less frequently around the Outer Cape in the fall. The fierce peregrine falcon, as well as merlins and American kestrels, are sometimes seen, Prescott says. They feed on smaller birds, including shorebirds and land birds, particularly those that are migrating and may have tired after being blown off course during a storm.
“They are hunting when they are migrating,” Prescott says of the falcons. “You’re going to see nature in the raw—life and death within migration.”
Autumn marks a change in life on the freshwater ponds that dot the Cape. As September and October roll around, most of the humans who called the ponds their summer habitat migrate, making room for ducks that will stay all winter, among them the green-headed common mergansers and the black-and-white buffleheads.
“As a birder goes, it’s just nice to see a pond that was quiet all summer, in terms of avian life, it’s nice to see the people get off and the ducks come on,” O’Connor muses.
This is also when sea ducks start appearing for the winter, including three species of scoters—the black, surf, and white-winged—and the common eiders, the largest of these birds. The white-winged scoter, with its all-black body except for white side wings and a comma-shaped white patch around the eye, is probably the most striking.
O’Connor, author of Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches, likens birding to fishing because “there is always that surprise,” he says. In the wintertime, it can be a downy-white snowy owl from the Arctic tundra touching down on the shores of Coast Guard Beach. “Usually one or two show up every year, but it’s still kind of rare,” he says. Bald eagles also surprise and delight: A sighting is recorded about monthly now, given that eagle nests exist in Lakeville and Fall River, he notes.
And while autumn brings a certain amount of avian excitement throughout the Cape, so do most seasons, he says. “That’s what’s nice about the Cape—there is always a good birding season, except maybe June, when the birds are sitting on eggs.”
Donna Scaglione is a freelance writer living in Falmouth.
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