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Shorebirds and seabirds

Hudsonian Godwit
Mark Faherty
/
Hudsonian Godwit

Like it or not, we’re on the downhill to Labor Day. For birding, this means you need to get your fill of shorebirds and summer seabirds soon, because after early September they thin out faster than the tourists with school-aged kids. The Cape is rightly famous as a destination to see impressive numbers and diversity of shorebirds, as well as the ease of seeing elsewhere-uncommon seabirds right from your beach chair. The best places for shorebirds, mostly remote parts of Chatham, are tougher to get to these days, but they have always required catching a shuttle boat. You can still do that in hopes of scoring your Hudsonian Godwit for the year on the famous flats of Monomoy, but you can also check any number of more accessible local beaches with pretty good luck as well.

In the next few weeks the number of migratory shorebirds passing through the area will hit its peak. These mostly Arctic nesting birds spent June dodging Arctic foxes and predatory birds, like jaegers and Snowy Owls, and trying to raise their chicks to fledging. By all accounts this was a tough year for Arctic shorebirds because the lemming population was low. Odd as this sounds, the idea that we may see fewer shorebirds because of some obscure rodent a half a continent away, it makes sense. In low lemming years, the predators up there are hungrier for shorebird eggs and chicks, so we see fewer juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and Black-bellied Plovers come late summer. It also means we won’t see many Snowy Owls this winter, since without the lemmings, they didn’t have enough food to produce lots of chicks, but that’s a story for another season.

Least Sandpiper
Mark Faherty
/
Least Sandpiper

Despite the lemming situation, perhaps hundreds of thousands of shorebirds will still pass through over the rest of the summer. Other than Chatham, where should you look for them? Any barrier beach could be good – these are the ones where the beach and dune protect a back marsh, including huge systems like Sandy Neck and Nauset, medium ones like Chapin Beach or West Dennis Beach, or smaller ones like Seagull Beach in Yarmouth or Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay sanctuary – both of the last two spots have hosted numbers of the big, highly sought sandpiper called the Whimbrel in recent days. If you’re on the islands then you probably know the good shorebird spots already, and you don’t want other people to know about them, so we’ll leave it at that.

Late summer is also peak time for seabirds like shearwaters and terns. For those in search of seabirds, but not wanting to make the exhausting, slow slog out to Race Point – and that’s just driving there on Rt. 6 – you’re in luck, because recently shearwaters have been easy to see from bayside and backside beaches, alike. Cory’s, Great, and lesser numbers of Sooty and Manx Shearwaters have all been seen close to bay beaches from Truro to Sandwich, with good numbers off Pamet Harbor in Truro, ditto any ocean beach from Nauset to P’town. And if you’ve been fishing somewhere east of Monomoy you may have bumped into as many as tens of thousands of these shearwaters and other seabirds feeding in that area.

So armed with this knowledge, I urge you to seek out these places and birds, to think about the many miles they’ve come to be here, and about the critical role our still-productive shores play in their annual story. I’ll end with a teaser for next week, when I’ll most likely be covering a blockbuster of a new breeding record for New England that recently came to my attention, tucked away on some private property in Sandwich. So tune in next time, folks - same bird time, same bird channel.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.