Birding on Cape Cod by Randolph Bartlett

The Cape Naturalist: Vol 1 No 1

June, 1972

The geographical uniqueness of Cape Cod makes it an exciting place for the summer visitor interested in bird watching. The Cape’s varied terrain and moderate maritime climate makes it a home or regular port-of-call for nearly 400 species and sub-species of land and shore birds.

The two best months to observe these assorted “goodies” (both quantitatively and qualitatively) are July and August, when the fall migration is in progress. Lasting from July through October, the migration reaches a peak of shorebirds in mid-August, and of landbirds in September when our beaches, marshlands, and woodlands furnish food and rest for thousands of weary feathered travelers. These birds may stay only a few hours, or they may remain for several weeks. In fact, it is not uncommon for some to double their body weight during this time in preparation for long, arduous, non-stop flights to Caribbean Islands or even South America.

Rule #1 for birding on Cape Cod is to keep the weather and tides in mind. In less than a few hours, a day which begins bright and calm can become overcast, cold, and stormy -particularly when the winds shift into the easterly quadrant of the compass. Although good Nor’easters may last three days or more, they can be a blessing to the hardy birder, since their strong winds frequently carry in unexpected species to the Cape. In this connection, First Encounter Beach in Eastham is an excellent spot to find sea birds after a storm.

Regarding tides-let them work for you rather than against you. Remember, you will see more shorebirds in a marsh when the tide is high, for at low tide most species will be greatly dispersed due to the larger feeding area and are literally hidden in the marsh. So, unless you enjoy fleeting glimpses of birds’ heads popping out of the Spartina grass, try to time your viewing to coincide with high tide when the birds will be moving out of the tall grass and in from the mud flats to cluster in flocks on higher, more open, ground. Perhaps the best area to find shorebirds in this manner is Nauset Marsh, Eastham. Be sure to take a long sleeved shirt and insect repellent, unless you want to be a walking hors-d’oeuvre for greenhead flies which can be fierce in mid-July!

If you are interested in looking for land birds, or if you want to balance your Cape Cod bird list, try the following areas in the solitude of early morning before the shrieking multitudes have had a chance to wipe the sand from their eyes: the Beech Forest in Provincetown; the White Cedar Swamp, Wellfleet; and the Red Maple Swamp and Fort Hill in Eastham. In addition to the variety of birds welcoming you to each of these fascinating habitats in early morning in the Cape Cod summer: peace and quiet!

In conclusion, don’t forget to check with the Natural History Museum, the National Seashore, and the Wellfleet Audubon Sanctuary for additional information concerning field trips, lectures, and places to see birds. Besides a pair of good binoculars (or a spotting scope) and a standard field guide (Robbins, et. al. Birds of North America, or Peterson, Field Guide to the Birds), it would be worthwhile to procure a copy of Bailey, Birds of the Cape Cod National Seashore. This is a specialized guide to birds of this area which is both helpful and informative.

And one last thing, as you explore the Cape, remember that it is a highly fragile area, easily destroyed by human carelessness. Think twice before you park your automobile off the road on the natural vegetation; by the end of the summer it might well be gone.

The newly formed Cape Cod Bird Club, of which the author of this article is Vice President and Mrs. Lucian Rowell President, attracted immediate support and has gained many members. The club conducts field trips and lectures and has been meeting regularly at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History.

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