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In This Place

Red Brook Drawdown

Courtesy Mike Tucker of Falmouth
Wilson’s Phalarope from Red Brook";

If you’re into bird migration—and why wouldn’t you be?—September is an intense month. Almost every bird that migrates is on the move, from hawks to seabirds, warblers to woodpeckers. At the backyard level, we wonder when our hummingbirds will disappear for good and where our Orioles suddenly went. 

On the beaches, this is the best time to run into uncommon super-migrants like a Buff-breasted Sandpiper or American Golden-Plover, en route from Alaska to Argentina. I could go on, of course. In fact, over the years, birders have recorded at least 330 species on Cape Cod in the month of September. So, for the next several minutes, I will list them, in order: Snow Goose, Brant…

Just kidding. That would make for a worse than usual bird report. What I actually want to talk about is stopover habitat for all of these migrants, those critical patches of land or water they need to rest and refuel, and how they find them. In particular, I want to address one piece of stopover habitat here on the Cape that wasn’t there a few weeks ago – the Red Brook mudflats, formerly known as Red Brook Reservoir, part of an old cranberry bog straddling the Falmouth/Mashpee line.

Recently, the dam that impounds this artificial pond failed. This returned the wetland to its more natural state - Red Brook, was, after all, a brook. The headlines said that the pond was “devastated”, and locals were understandably sad to see dead fish and seemingly homeless turtles. But where others saw devastation, birds and birders saw opportunity. Fish were now concentrated in the small brook, and the newly-exposed mud flats and shallow water provided rich feeding for transient shorebirds fattening up for their long flights.

Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons lined the stream. Interesting sandpipers turned up almost immediately – a rare Wilson’s Phalarope spent several days on the flats, and there were flocks of Solitary Sandpipers - figure that one out. (This is why we capitalize proper bird names, folks.) Pectoral Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer, big flocks of Least Sandpipers and smaller flocks of Semipalmated Plovers. None of them could use this habitat before the dam failed. There were even more ducks than usual – Green-winged Teal and relatively rare Blue-winged Teal joined the usual Mallards, attracted by the now shallow pools and flats. One Mashpee birder remarked that she had never seen so many birds at this site in the 20 years she’d been birding there.

So is this a local ecological tragedy or a boon to wildlife? It’s all a question of time and perspective. The immediate situation looks dire – fish are dead, turtles homeless. But in reality, this dry down mirrors a natural process that occurs in beaver country, whereby beavers abandon an old dam, which inevitably fails, draining the beaver pond. And the big land management agencies, like US Fish and Wildlife, purposely draw down pools to create habitat for migratory birds, who, like those visiting Red Brook, are programmed to look for these ephemeral habitats.

So, if you’re one of the locals feeling a bit “drained” over the demise of Red Brook Reservoir, take heart. But more importantly, take up birding, because a treasure trove of birds awaits you at the newest birding hotspot in town, the Red Brook mud flats.