Dave Hursh and I spent a terrific day of birding on the Outer Cape, hitting spots in Eastham, Truro and Provincetown. Having enjoyed some great birding on the Cape on this same weekend in the past, we knew we were in for a great day. But then again, awesome days are inevitable when Dave and I bird together, so we needed no assurances.
Our first stop of the day was Fort Hill in Eastham, one of the top birding spots on the Cape, but one I had surprisingly never visited. We spent a few hours walking the fields and along the marsh, as well as enjoying the stunning view over the Nauset Marsh system and barrier beach beyond.
The birds here did not disappoint, although our primary targets, the Ammodramus sparrows that are known to winter in the marsh (and are regularly seen at the base of the hill with a high enough tide, as we had on this day), remained elusive, save for a single bird that quickly flushed and disappeared.
The elusiveness of the sparrows notwithstanding, we managed to put up an awesome total of forty-one species, including: Green-winged Teal, Greater Yellowlegs, Dunlin, Bonaparte’s Gull, Marsh Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Bluebird, American Pipit, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Tree Sparrow, Fox Sparrow and Eastern Meadowlark.
The Eastern Meadowlarks were likely the highlight of the visit for me. Initially spotted by Dave flying far out in the marsh (quite a pull!), we later noted a group in one of the fields, possibly containing some of the same birds. We were able to enjoy good scope views of these birds as they sat up and preened, eventually flying off one by one.
Our next stop was MacMillan Wharf in P’town Harbor, the site of some great birding memories over the years.
Upon exiting the car, I went over some of the rarer avian possibilities with Dave, with King Eider as one of them. I asked Dave, “you know female King versus female Common Eider, no? Definitely!” It was as Dave was locking the car that I looked over the edge of the wharf to find a first winter male King Eider (!) swimming among Commons.
I actually laughed out loud in amusement that my “putting it out there” had produced such a rapid response. Dave and I spent a while watching this awesome bird, mesmerized and humored that such a random and unlikely possibility as a King Eider, one we were just discussing a couple of seconds ago in non serious terms, was now swimming about just yards away. Gotta love it!
The eider wasn’t the only great bird hanging around the harbor, and our hour-long vigil ended up producing 18 species including: Brant, Common Eider (all of the Atlantic subspecies dresseri), White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Loon, Horned Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, both cormorants and Ruddy Turnstone.
After an awesome stop at the harbor, we headed over to Herring Cove Beach and the Hatches Harbor area, in hopes that the masses of gulls and waterfowl might yield a goodie or two.
But our hoped-for rarity at this location was not to be found on the beach or in the marsh. Indeed, it waited till the last possible moment to show itself.
As we were driving out of the beach parking lot, I noticed a small, thin shape atop a short shrub in the nearby dunes. Nearly letting it go, I instead informed Dave, and we backed up a bit, quickly taking a look.
Words cannot describe our utter excitement and bewilderment when we noticed that the bird staring back at us, right through our binoculars, as if it was seeing into our hearts, was a Short-eared Owl.
But as quickly as the bird appeared, it took off, heading towards the road leading to Race Point. We immediately picked up speed in order to keep up with it, and noticed that the bird was remaining in flight over the dunes bordering the road, allowing us to keep an eye on it.
What ensued was a Hollywood-style car chase, with our vehicle being high on the heels on this marvelous bird. We drove along for what seemed like forever (but was really only a few seconds), following the owl as it danced like a moth over the dunes, at times needing a good acceleration in order to keep up. We were finally able to overtake it, and it was like one of those movies; our quarry, as if noticing our move, quickly headed farther into the dunes, away from the road, and out of sight.
It was my first Short-eared Owl since January of 2011, and really put the exclamation point on an incredible day.
Our stop at the beach was pretty successful, although paled in comparison to this significantly shorter, exhilarating experience. Highlights included ten Red-necked Grebes, a Peregrine Falcon sitting out in the marsh and a flyover Horned Lark, heading south.
Our next stop was Race Point, where we found the offshore waters to be rather quiet. The sunny conditions, coupled with the lack of wind, likely hurt our cause here, and it felt a little anticlimactic after our previous experience.
Nevertheless, we took our time on the beach, enjoying the sheer beauty of the location, and the birds that were present. These included Red-necked Grebe, Northern Gannet and Razorbill, among others.
With daylight quickly receding, we departed Provincetown and headed just over the border into Truro to hit the High Head area before dusk. This area overlooks Pilgrim Lake and I’ve always found it to hold quite a bit of promise for any lingering passerines and other “Cape-centric” rarities, although we didn’t get enough time to thoroughly bird the area on this visit. A couple of White-winged Scoters were on the lake, along with a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers in the thickets, but that was mostly it bird wise. I’ll definitely have to make an early morning stop at this location one of these winters!
With the sun setting on what had been a miraculous day, Dave and I set out for home, and a great dinner with the family. Cape Cod is just too good.