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September Hotspots on the Cape and Islands

Connecticut Warbler
Mark Faherty
Connecticut Warbler

When it comes to fall birding hotspots around here, the best of the best places tend to fall somewhere between “difficult” and “you’ve got to be kidding me” in terms of their accessibility. These include South Monomoy, Cuttyhunk, Race Point, the Gay Head Cliffs of Aquinnah, and Pochet Island in Orleans. I suppose the Gay Head Cliffs aren’t that inaccessible if you live on the Vineyard, but they sure seem exotic from where I sit in Harwich. But while these relatively remote outposts offer the best chances for oddities and large numbers of migrants, the good thing about where we live, is, there’s a pretty good chance of seeing cool things just about anywhere.

The Gay Head Cliffs are famous not so much for harboring migrants as for showcasing active migration. Birds either pass by, pass overhead, or are bunched up after crossing the island from east to west in hopes of getting away from the ocean — flying over water is perilous for small songbirds, a necessary evil for migrants pushed to the coast by west winds. Catch it right and birds are migrating right by in numbers hard to imagine elsewhere, or are killing time while they get the nerve to head out over water again.

On Saturday birders arriving to the cliffs a little before 6 a.m. tallied almost 700 Cedar Waxwings, over 200 Bobolinks, 15 species of warbler, four kinds of vireos, two falcon species, assorted flycatchers, and many other migrating birds passing by or hanging out along the cliffs. The cliffs are best early in the morning — other birders arriving two hours later saw less than half the species and a fraction of the total birds of those early birders.

Cuttyhunk, that quirky little island at the end of the Elizabeth chain, is a boutique fall birding spot for birders in the know. Those who visit skew young and adventurous. Once you arrive by boat you need to find your way around on foot — the locals use golf carts. Good birds are often right in the town. A birder on Saturday hauled in a catch of 69 species, including a dozen warbler species. Among them was the mysterious and highly prized Connecticut Warbler, stopping by on its journey between some boreal spruce bog in Canada and somewhere deep in South America.

South Monomoy, the most inaccessible, wilderness-designated part of the national wildlife refuge at the Cape’s elbow, has been racking up highlights too extensive to even cover in the remaining time – a heady mix of rare marsh birds and ducks, and enviable songbirds like the ever-rare Golden-winged Warbler banded by ornithologists by the lighthouse. I’ll come back to this gem of an island another week.

As I have said roughly 2.6 million times before, interesting birds can turn up anywhere, especially here at the coast. While any suburban yard can get lucky, your bird-finding chances are best in fall if you find weedy, sunny spots where multiple habitats come together, like some combination of woodland, marsh, and grassland. Check flocks of common birds, like Chipping and Song Sparrows feeding in short grass, as they are often hiding an oddity. Keep an ear out for calls you don’t recognize and track them down. Check Cornell’s eBird website for up-to-the-minute sightings or even join one of the local wildlife or birding groups on Facebook if you dare.

Yes, remote outposts like Monomoy and Cuttyhunk harbor ornithological goodies for good reason, but so can everywhere else. That means that, here on the Cape and Islands, the best place to find migrating birds is wherever you are right now. So take a morning walk or move that home office onto the deck — if you just look and listen, I think you’ll be amazed at what you find.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.