Race Point, Fort Hill and other locales on the peninsula are popular sighting areas
“For birding, no other place on the East Coast of the United States can compare to Cape Cod,” claims Steve Arena, whose passion is seabirds.
An engineering manager from Westboro, Arena travels often to Race Point in P-town to spot and photograph birds. He became interested in birds at the age of 6, and has been birding seriously for the past 30 years, including capturing many species in his photos. Like many staunch birders, Arena maintains a photo repository at the online site Flikr—where his collection boasts nearly 12,000 images. Distinguished in the birding community, Arena achieved wider recognition in 2016, when he spotted a Yellow-billed Loon from the beach at Race Point. Cape Cod Times published a story about this event, and online birding sites chirped with interest—for this was the first time anyone had ever reported a Yellow-billed Loon sighting in all of Massachusetts. According to Audubon Magazine, less than 10,000 of the species remain, with more than half living in Alaska. “Folks came from as far away as Quebec and Alabama to see it,” Arena told the Times.
Cape Cod has long enjoyed its relationships with birds, though this has evolved over the past century. Back in the whaling era, lookouts would often spot birds before they’d see a spout, and, even today, fishermen look for bird activity to guide them to schools of fish. When the market shooting of shorebirds was widespread at the turn of the 20th century, Cape Codders could make a living from guiding and from the sale of bird decoys—that is, until the federal government ratified the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act in response to rapid declines in populations; the law protects species as diverse as bluebirds and great blue herons. And just as the whale watching industry has grown since the ban on hunting whales, bird-watching from smaller boats has also become a draw for enthusiasts.
Birding as a hobby, an activity, and even a vocation has shown rapid advances in the digital age, expanding opportunities for birders of every level. For many, birding begins in the backyard, and the place to find all of the necessary tools for this trade is in Orleans, at the Bird Watcher’s General Store. Like other general stores, this one offers a vast collection of items—but the focus, here, is on all things ornithological. There’s a section featuring the work of local artists including paintings of wood ducks on slate, carved songbirds, prints of chickadees, and watercolors of herons. There’s also a recreation section with bird dominoes and jigsaw puzzles, a clothing department with parrot socks and crow t-shirts, jewelry and ornament nooks with earrings of carved and silver bird likenesses, an optics section with binoculars and scopes, and an entire wing dedicated to feeders, baths, and seeds. In the bookshop, one can find field guides, videos, birdsong CDs and DVDs, and, of course titles on everything under the sun—with feathers. “This is the part of the store I like the best,” owner Mike O’Connor says, “the field guides, and the education. This is what’s important.”
O’Connor says real estate and loan officers thought he was daffy back in 1983, when he decided to open the store, so one of his goals has been to prove them wrong. “Back then,” O’Connor says, “if you wanted a feeder, you’d go to a hardware store; for bird feed you’d go to a grain store; for a field guide, you’d have to go to the bookstore. I decided to put it all together. That was 34 years ago, and we’re still going.”
During that time, O’Connor has contributed to the birding community in a number of ways. He writes a column for The Cape Codder, a weekly newspaper based in Orleans, in which he usually answers questions like “What is the largest owl?” or “What can you tell me about bird feet?” He’s been at it awhile. “I’ve been doing it every week for 17 years now,” O’Connor says. “I’m running out of stuff to talk about. I just wrote one about a Duck-billed Platypus—which isn’t even a bird.” He is also a featured guest on Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds, an audio show available on radio, livestream, and podcast. The show is an excellent example of one way that technology has changed birding. “Because of the internet, we get listeners from all over the country,” he says.
O’Connor jokes that digital tools such as the iBird app for smartphones haven’t done his shop any favors. “These have croaked my business,” he quips, but adds, “They do help promote birding, though.” iBird markets its Ultimate Guide to Birds as “the best field guide app you can buy,” and its features include audio of bird calls, identification of 940 distinct species, and, as the app’s product description states, an “icon-driven visual search engine that enables to identify birds using shape, color, location, habitat, head pattern, flight pattern, bill shape, length and more.”
One of the most significant advances in birding arrived in 2002, when the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society together launched eBird, an online treasury of real-time bird information that allows birders to log specific observations. “This has been the torchbearer of the digital age,” Arena says, “a truly spectacular database.” With just a few clicks, one can “explore” Barnstable County on eBird and discover that a birder spotted two Bald Eagles at Mashpee Pond that same day or three Northern Harriers at Fort Hill in Eastham the day before. With this information, one could then travel to those same spots in hopes of seeing the same birds. eBird lists species, recent visitors, top eBirders, and hot spots. At Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, the Cape’s top-ranked hot spot, birders have logged 293 species going back to 1979, but the earliest recorded sighting in Barnstable County, an Eskimo Curlew, is dated September 7, 1885. Most of the Cape Cod sightings recorded on eBird however, have been logged during the past three years, as greater numbers of birders have tuned in to the site.
The immediacy of available information has revolutionized the way people access birds. “In the old days, people would call hotlines that would be updated once a week,” O’Connor says, and Arena adds that CB radios were also used to spread the news. In addition to eBird, enthusiasts today subscribe to listservs, or email chains, that provide notifications. Blair Nikula, a Cape Cod native from Harwich and a longtime birder, notes that both Cape Cod Birds and Mass Bird have proven to be useful listservs for the birding community.
In addition to his online contributions and his work with the Cape Cod Bird Club, of which he is a past president, Nikula has been instrumental in advancing physical access to seabirds with his “mini-pelagic” birding tours. The word pelagic derives from Greek, and means “open sea”; these four-to-five-hour trips carry small flocks of birders out into the Atlantic, where various seabirds spend most of their lives. “Blair really started these mini-pelagics out of Chatham,” says fellow birder Peter Flood of Dennis, but Nikula credits his boat captain, Ken Eldredge for the idea. A Chatham resident, Eldredge is a 12th-generation Cape Codder who fishes commercially and runs sportfishing charters on his 32-foot boat, Kittiwake, named for a type of gull. During the past four years, Eldredge and Nikula have operated about a dozen trips each season, which runs from May through October.
Flood works with Nikula on the mini-pelagic tours. “We usually go due east,” Flood says, “depending on where the birds are, for 2 to 12 miles off Chatham or Provincetown.”
During the summer, Flood says, birders can spot a variety of shearwaters, including the Sooty Shearwater, which migrates up from the Falkland Islands; Manx Shearwaters that breed on both sides of the North Atlantic; Cory’s Shearwaters that nest in the Azores and Cape Verde; and Great Shearwaters from the remote Tristan da Cunha Island, located in the South Atlantic about midway between the tip of South Africa and Uruguay. “If there’s enough food around, they can be in pretty spectacular numbers,” Flood says. “They only come to shore to breed, so they spend a significant portion of their early lives—three to four years—on the open ocean.” Other frequent sightings include Jaegers, Storm Petrels, and Kittiwakes.
Because Cape Cod juts out into the Atlantic, the peninsula plays a major role in migratory flying patterns, particularly as a resting spot for birds who have flown across the open ocean on their return trip north in the spring. Arena’s favorite birding site is Race Point, and he says the area is a key reason why the Cape is so fascinating. “Race Point has colliding currents, called The Rip, which cause a food “bonus” situation for fish, birds, and mammals,” Arena says. There’s also a significant drop-off close to shore, he explains, which affords individuals on the beach a closer-than-usual vantage point to deep-water activity. Because the arm creates Cape Cod Bay, nor’easters blow in birds from the open ocean, and one of the first places they arrive is Race Point. Furthermore, the Cape extends nearly to the southern edge of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Park. “This is an underwater mesa, which causes upwelling,” Arena says. “Whales and birds gather here because of the abundance of food.” Provincetown Harbor is only about ten miles from Stellwagen Bank, making it a convenient departure point for pelagic trips. “The last couple of seasons,” Arena adds, “we’ve had over 20 Humpback Whales around the boat, too, which will just blow you away.”
Each of the individuals interviewed for this story commented that Race Point is a birding gem, but an additional suggestion is found on the Eastham coast. “I always send people to Fort Hill,” O’Connor says, “though there’s no fort and barely a hill. It looks out over Nauset Marsh, and it has woodland trails and marsh trails.” He adds that the site is ranked second on eBird for Barnstable County, and due to its trails and accessible views, it is beginner-friendly. Flood lauds the Beech Forest in Provincetown for spotting songbirds in springtime, and Sandy Neck—both the beach and its stands of pitch pine and American holly—is one of Arena’s favorites. But he adds that the Cape offers many great spots. “All the ponds from Provincetown to the canal hold ducks in the spring, winter, and fall,” he says. “And the Francis Crane Reservation in North Falmouth has Upland Sandpipers and Grasshopper Sparrows which require large expanses of grasslands.”
Cape Cod offers various resources for birders and those who want to learn more. The Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary hosts programs for both children and adults, as does the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster. Both centers also offer scenic nature trails. The Cape Cod Bird Club has monthly meetings, generally at the natural history museum, which are open to the public. “They also have regular walks that are informal, generally for novices,” O’Connor adds. Nikula, who still leads one or two walks per year, suggests this approach is a good starting point for beginners. When it comes to birding, he says, “the best thing is to spend time with experienced people.”
Among its other qualities, bird watching offers its devotees adventure, connection with nature, and the pursuit of knowledge. “Birding,” Arena concludes, “provides endless challenges and endless learning opportunities, thus allowing me to constantly improve at identification and at understanding the birds’ natural history. When I find out something new about a bird, it’s just awesome.”
More information on birding walks, meetings, and more can be found at capecodbirdclub.org capecodbirds.org or 247 ASAP Locksmith company.
Chris White is freelance writer who teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.