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It's the Season for Bird Watching on Cape Cod

September 18, 1988|CORINNE K. HOEXTER | Hoexter is a free-lance writer living in Englewood, N.J

PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — Even if all bird songs sound like so much twitter, a trip to this area may make at least a temporary bird watcher out of you.

From April to November, Cape Cod, that narrow forearm and fist curving into the Atlantic from Buzzard's Bay to Provincetown, resembles a major airport hub for migrating birds.

The spring migration passes swiftly. By June, sea birds and shore birds have reached their northernmost breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra or the rocky shores of Maine and Newfoundland. Meanwhile, many songbirds have taken off for more northern woods. And herons may be nesting in some inland marsh or pond.

In high summer, between the rushes of spring and fall, the shores and salt marshes remain alive with local nesters. The fall migration begins as early as the end of June.

Southward the Falcons

By August the southward journey of shore and sea birds has shifted into high gear, to peak in September. At the same time, hawks are heading south, as are falcons (merlins and the endangered peregrines) in pursuit of their natural prey, the songbirds.

By October, great flocks of ducks and geese arrive.

As soon as I reach my cottage near the salt marsh I grab my binoculars. First I pause in the front yard just as the bobwhites and their young parade across the sandy clearing.

Then, especially if it's low tide, I check out the assortment of plovers, sandpipers, egrets, gulls and clam diggers at our strip of beach on Cape Cod Bay.

After this preview I head north to the 700-acre Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. In the tops of the pines that screen the parking lot from the salt marsh, a convention of warblers is in progress.

The yellow-breasted birds seem to be playing a game of musical branches, constantly shifting in some mysterious system of rotation.

Identifying Warblers

Unfortunately the identification of warblers, like that of sandpipers, still eludes me. Are these myrtle or magnolia, prairie, pine or palm? My friend, a serious birder, reminds me that it's the aptly named pine warblers that nest and spend most of their lives in these conifers.

The similar prairie and palm warblers are also yellow-breasted, but they nest much closer to the ground and have streaked instead of solid breasts.

On this morning Erma J. Fisk, known locally as Jonnie, an 82-year-old amateur ornithologist and naturalist, is giving one of her famous bird-banding demonstrations.

When all the birds are gone Fisk leads her audience to the mist nets that are used to trap her birds early in the morning.

Meanwhile, we set off to hike the 1 1/2-mile loop of Goose Pond Trail, which passes through the major habitats of the sanctuary.

On Noisy Pond

Just beyond the first bend in the trail is a long, narrow pond. Bordered by cattails, spicy-scented sweet pepperbush, various wildflowers and the ubiquitous poison ivy, the pond provides a freshwater environment for the redwing blackbird and the common yellowthroat.

You can hear the constant "witchety, witchety" of this rarely seen warbler even during the midday quiet hour for birds.

On the boardwalk across the tidal flat at Goose Pond is a viewing scope set up by a naturalist leading a bird hike. Hordes of shore birds, ducks and geese gather there to forage.

We are hoping to catch the whimbrel, a brownish shore bird up to 19 inches long, with the distinctive three- to four-inch curved bill that marks it as a curlew.

In the 19th Century clouds of whimbrels, like many other now-scarce shore birds, flew over the East Coast at migration time. But they were hunted almost to extinction. Thanks to stronger protective laws, they have partially recovered, and they generally stop off in Wellfleet each year.

We pass from the pine woods to the shore of Wellfleet Bay and squish through the marsh grass to Try Island. A platform on a low rise commands a fine view of the bay.

The sky is as full of wings as the bay of sails. Marsh hawks hang almost motionless. Gulls soar. Herons flap by with their necks folded up their backs. Lower, terns skim and dive, while flocks of shore birds keep landing, then rise suddenly to swoosh down again not far away.

A flock of large gray-brown birds with a sort of flecked pattern on their backs sweep low over the marsh and settle on one of the mud flats. Their long bills have the identifying downward curve.

At last we return to the beach and follow the final circle of Goose Pond Trail across an upland meadow. All the common native songbirds live in these fields and in the locust woods that lead back to the north shore of Goose Pond.

Cape Cod National Seashore provides a full seasonal program of nature walks and lectures, some of them focused on birds.

Top of the List

Two expeditions within its boundaries top my list. The first is a bicycle ride down to the ocean at Coast Guard Beach, early in the morning by way of a beautiful trail that begins behind the Salt Pond Visitors Center in Eastham.

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