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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 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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