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The Birding Mecca: Race Point

Mark Faherty

At this point in the summer, a coastal birder’s focus becomes clear. Seabirds and shorebirds are currently arriving from all corners of the hemisphere, and the same goes for birders hoping to see them. The need to see them is enough to compel otherwise sane people to head out into Cape traffic and toward major beach parking lots. 

The smart birder goes early or late, when beach booths sit empty and crowds have waxed or waned. But one place is so tempting and so packed with rare bird potential that you get there whenever you can – it’s legendary Race Point in Provincetown, where the bird and whale show can make a landlubber feel 50 miles out to sea.

Race Point lies within the Cape Cod National Seashore at the very tip of this peninsula, the “sandy fist” on Thoreau’s bared and bended arm. To the north is Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the bread and butter of a whale watching industry worth tens of millions of dollars. But the key to the birding potential lies in the deep oceanic waters that practically kiss the beach at Race Point, drawing rarely seen pelagic birds from far offshore. Plus, the Race lies at the inflection point between Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, where birds passing between these major water bodies virtually clip the beach with a wingtip.

Credit Mark Faherty

But it’s not just sand and water - just east of the beach lie the rich wet thickets of the Provincetown Airport, and the extensive saltmarshes, piney dunes, and wild cranberry bogs of Hatches Harbor. Collectively these habitats are full of potential for interesting migrant songbirds, shorebirds, and marsh birds, especially late summer through fall. In winter, Snowy Owls may patrol the area while Razorbills and kittiwakes stream by offshore. In summer, we’re talking four globetrotting species of shearwaters, storm-petrels, 18 types of shorebirds and 8 species of terns. Some of these birds are hard to see from land, some hard to see anywhere at all.

Birds are just part of the draw – depending on the time of year, you may see Humpback, Fin, Minke, or Northern Right Whales, or maybe even dolphins just off the beach. A week or two ago, 85 foot, 80 ton Fin Whales were feeding actively at the Race, providing a rare opportunity to watch the unheralded second largest animal to ever live on the planet, beat out only by the Blue Whale.

The Race rarely disappoints, and this week it dominated the regional rare bird report. A South Polar Skua made an appearance on the 18th, a quite rare visitor from, you guessed it, the South Pole. This Antarctic brute was likely eating penguin chicks a couple of months ago, but here they harass gulls and other seabirds to steal their fish. Gulls are the birds that only a birder could love, but if you’re into them, then Race Point is your place – birders documented 11 species just this month, including fancy ones like the handsome Sabine’s Gull and an out of season, arctic nesting Glaucous Gull. Let’s face it – you had no idea there were even that many types of gulls.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this birding mecca, so a part two may be forthcoming. If you visit in the meantime, make sure to pack some water, because getting to the Race can involve a 5-mile round trip hike in soft sand, so you’ll need that water to take your ibuprofen.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.