Cape Cod's Top Spots to See Shorebirds
It’s August and shorebird migration is well underway. Small, delicate looking creatures that spent the month of June dodging Arctic foxes and Snowy Owls are now winging their way Cape-wards. Some may stay just a week or two before continuing on to the southern reaches of the hemisphere, perhaps as much as 10,000 miles from their breeding grounds. Shorebirds are such incredible migrators that species who fly almost 5000 miles one way to wintering grounds in the Caribbean Basin are classified as “short-distance migrants”.
So who are these impressive birds and where can you see them? I’m glad you asked, because I really needed something to talk about this week. So let’s take a virtual tour of some of the better shorebird spots on the Cape.
Chatham has cornered the market on good shorebirding spots, but the best of them have become inaccessible in recent years due to shifting sands. South Beach in Chatham was one of the east’s best birding spots from the 1990s through just a few years ago. You went expecting over 100 Hudsonian Godwits and whatever rare Eurasian sandpiper Blair Nikula had turned up that week. But most of it has eroded away, and what’s left, a vestigial beach fused to the north end of South Monomoy, is hard to get to.
If you do somehow get there, pick a four-hour span straddling high tide, as this is a roosting spot more than a feeding area. Some industrious birders conducted a shorebird survey on behalf of the refuge last weekend and, among the more than 7000 roosting sandpipers and plovers, turned up close to 500 federally Threatened Red Knots and 7 Hudsonian Godwits, plus about 1000 Common and Roseate Terns for good measure – shades of the good old days.
If you are not an official shorebird surveyor or are otherwise boat-challenged, I recommend the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge headquarters at Morris Island. Walk down to the southern end of the island facing the potent North Monomoy flats and you’ll see many of the same species if not in the same numbers. A recent visit by a local birder produced an impressive 33 American Oystercatchers and 150 Least Terns here. Forest Beach, on Chatham’s Nantucket Sound shoreline, is another excellent spot for shorebirds, but also herons and egrets – you just need to survive the bumper crop of poison ivy tickling your ankles along the back path to the creek.
Dennis has an impressive portfolio of nice, tourist-laden beaches, and a few of them are pretty good for shorebirds, too. If you visit Chapin Beach before the throngs arrive, you can expect 10 or 12 species of sandpipers and plovers and 4 species of terns, including the uncommon Forster’s Tern, a specialty here.
Coast Guard Beach in Eastham offers some world class shorebirding if you hit it right, but in recent years you need a kayak to get to the best spots back in the marsh. But unlike the bay and sound beaches I’ve mentioned, you have a good chance of seeing seabirds like shearwaters and jaegers here on this Atlantic Ocean beach, and it can host thousands of roosting terns in late summer.
Lastly, Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay sanctuary, not coincidentally my employer, offers excellent shorebird watching potential. Something like 17 sandpiper and plover species are likely in August, including our totem bird, the Whimbrel. We are the best place in the state to see this impressive, big sandpiper with the huge, sickle of a bill. And the Goose Pond overlook often produces uncommon species like Stilt or Western Sandpipers.
Wherever you go, aim to get there early or late, like before 9 or after 5. Otherwise, as you choke your way through the clouds of aerosol sunscreen, the only species you may find at these beaches may be the Ruddy-faced Renter, the Toddling Screamer, and the Silver-topped Snowbird.
This piece first aired in July 2020.