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Birds of a Feather

In the autumn, Cape Cod is a birdwatcher’s paradise

Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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.

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