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Birds seen during a recent session of field school on Cape Cod

Mark Faherty

Thanks to some nice folks who signed up for my Fall Migrants Field School, I actually got out birding this past weekend. In this two-and-a-half day class offered by Mass Audubon Cape Cod, we explored fall bird migration through a series of field trips to Outer Cape birding hotspots. A lecture, snacks and expert guiding were provided. It was hard work but somebody had to do it.

We began on Friday with an afternoon hike to the tidal flats of Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary, Mass Audubon’s crown jewel, if you ask me. There we found clouds of seabirds: Laughing Gulls preparing to head south, as well as Common Terns and almost 300 Forster’s Terns, an obscure species hard to find anywhere save a few bayside beaches between Dennis and Wellfleet. The shorebirds common in early fall lined the creeks and the receding tideline — Black-bellied Plovers, Sanderlings, Dunlin, a few Semipalmated Plovers.

Before we parted ways in the parking lot, we were treated to a show from an unusually accommodating Merlin, a small, speedy falcon, terrorizer of all manner of birds. These are not birds who sit still very often, but this one did, teeing up nicely on a dead tree for extended periods, at least when it was not engaging a nearby crow in repeated aerial dogfights. It was like watching an F-16 teasing a cargo plane — no contest, really.

Saturday I led the intrepid participants on a forced march along the Hatches Harbor dike road and out to Race Point in Provincetown. We encountered a fun mixed flock of classic October migrants along the road, mostly Yellow-rumped and Pine Warblers, Chipping Sparrows, plus my first White-crowned Sparrow of the fall, all bathing in road puddles or flitting within arm’s reach of us in the scrubby pines. On the beach, we enjoyed flocks of delicate little Bonaparte’s Gulls working the waves or resting on the sand, a close flyby raven, and a pair of uncommon American Golden-Plovers on the back flats, trying hard to hide amongst their more common doppelgangers, the Black-bellied Plovers.

Our Sunday morning visit to Wellfleet Bay’s bird banding station was a highlight of the weekend. The banders returned from their 7:30 net run laden with birds, dazzling the group with intimate views of a surprising variety of songbirds — Yellow-breasted Chat, Orange-crowned Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Northern Parula, two kinds of vireo. But one bag held a real surprise — a bright yellow Hooded Warbler, mostly a southern species, and one of only three seen in Massachusetts this fall.

After the banding demo we headed to Fort Hill in Eastham, where the marsh was alive with big, charismatic birds in search of sushi. Dozens of Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets, lesser numbers of Snowy Egrets, and hundreds of gulls and cormorants joined in feeding frenzies along the bigger marsh channels. The herons and egrets crowded the shore, hoping the cormorants would drive the fish within their reach.

We ended this migration-focused weekend in fitting fashion, with an extended study of a young Peregrine Falcon sitting on First Encounter Beach in Eastham, like a feathered bullet taking a break before choosing its next victim from the nearest shorebird flock. From here, this bird may go as far as Argentina. As for me, I may not get out birding in earnest again until December. Until then, unlike that globetrotting peregrine, I’ll be lucky to get as far as Barnstable.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.