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In This Place

Summer Seabirds on the Tip of Cape Cod

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David Cook Wildlife Photography /CC BY-NC 2.0
Atlantic Puffin

I spend a lot of time during fall and winter raving about seabirds seen by a rugged class of birders at Race Point in Provincetown. This remote and sandy end-of-the-earth sort of spot is a mecca for seabird enthusiasts. At these times, migrating and wintering seabirds of interest are at peak abundance. But more and more, even in high summer, birders have been investing the considerable time it takes to get yourself out to “the Race”. This means more and better birds are being discovered here in summer, a time when this outpost was written off as too inaccessible. This past weekend, one of those better birds was everyone’s favorite seabird, that clown prince of the Gulf of Maine, the Atlantic Puffin.

Part of the attraction of Race Point in summer is that you are not limited to locally breeding birds. The possibilities there include a veritable world’s tour of seabirds – it’s a real crossroads, a Grand Central Station for seabirds. For one thing, individuals of many species fail to breed in any given year and either never reach the breeding grounds or leave quickly after a failed nest, and those sad sacks and youngsters often end up at the Race. Of this weekend’s sightings, examples include Little Gull, which is a tiny gull of the Old World, as well as Pomarine Jaeger, Black Tern, Red-throated Loon, and Northern Gannets, all of which should be elsewhere. A rare Sandwich Tern is also being seen, and should either be in Europe or the southern US coast right now, depending on what population it hails from.

Other specialties of the Race include southern hemisphere breeders like Wilson’s Storm-Petrel and both Sooty and Great Shearwaters, all of whom are taking refuge in our hemisphere from the austral winter. These are birds you can expect to see from a whale watch boat on many trips, though they seem to be even more likely from the Race than from a boat, of late.

When it comes to those puffins I teased, seabird maestro Peter Flood, of Dennis, cornered the market on them this weekend, documenting four together in one photo from a whale watch on Stellwagen Bank, and a minimum of five from Race Point during a land-based watch. This two-day tally nearly matched the total of summer puffin records for the entire Cape and Islands over the last several decades. He and others also noted some out of season Common Murres and Razorbills, both close puffin cousins only expected here in winter. As you may know, puffins breed as close as Mid-Coast Maine, where they should be tending their burrows right now. As for why these birds came south so soon, one can only speculate.

Seabirds weren’t the only news this week, of course. An achingly lovely Swallow-tailed Kite - a big, elegant, black-and-white hawk that’s pointy in all directions - seems to be summering locally instead of in Florida, where they breed. Birders have been seeing this bird for over a month now, including twice this week; once in Wellfleet and then again in Mashpee. And other uncommon and fine-looking birds like Black Skimmer, Blue Grosbeak, and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons have been around on the Mid and Upper Cape. But you can’t do better than birding at Race Point with limited time on the Cape and a penchant for long walks on the beach.

In case you need directions to Race Point, here they are, adjusted for the post-July 4 period: get on Rt 6 and head towards Provincetown. Over the next several hours, occasionally remove your foot from the break and coast forward a bit. Eventually you will reach Provincetown a much older and wiser person. Oh, and if your car fills with water, you’ve gone too far. Good luck!