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A snow globe of birds

Terns at Monomoy
Mark Faherty
/
Terns at Monomoy

Over the last week, I was lucky on a few occasions to bird one of the region’s great natural treasures, the Cape’s wild elbow, Monomoy. Here, the Atlantic Ocean, Nantucket Sound, and Pleasant Bay all come together to provide a bacchanalian feast of marine productivity, drawing seabirds and shorebirds from every compass direction to these wilderness islands. Counting birds on the Cape and Islands in fall is not easy, but especially at Monomoy. This is a time and place where birds show by the thousands, from seabirds to shorebirds, winter ducks to Tree Swallows.

Whimbrel
Mark Faherty
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Whimbrel

Some of the birdiest parts of Monomoy aren’t much more than an archipelago of uppity sandbars. It was on some such sandbars that I joined Manomet shorebird researchers Brad Winn, Alan Kneidel, and Shiloh Schulte to check on a Whimbrel they had just satellite tagged in Dennis. These big sandpipers with the crazy curved bills stop by en route from Arctic Canada to South America, and these guys have been tracking them to find key stopover and wintering areas. The transmitter betrayed the bird’s secret night location, a communal roost in a marshy bit of Monomoy, which is where we headed.

Once we waded ashore, Saltmarsh Sparrows, one of our most imperiled local species, scattered from patches of cordgrass. Among them, oddly, was a Cape May Warbler, a forest bird from the north hopping about in this treeless place. A fun part of Monomoy birding is that songbirds, exhausted from crossing the Gulf of Maine will often take the first land they see, trees or no trees, and this one made do with some wisps of goldenrod and marsh grass.

Looking up from these few songbirds, it was soon apparent that we were in a snow globe of thousands of waterbirds – as far as we could see in every direction were huge flocks of shorebirds, egrets, gulls, cormorants, and terns. At one point we looked straight up to see a roiling flock of 500 Common Terns soaring high overhead, getting up to nosebleed height before bannering out to the north, likely heading to a night roost. A single flock of feeding Snowy Egrets numbered 220, while others streamed by overhead until our tally reached over 370, a new high for Cape Cod. All told, we saw over 12,000 birds of 37 species over a couple of hours.

Franklin’s Gulls Peru
Mark Faherty
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Franklin’s Gulls; image taken in Peru

On another day I birded the mainland portion of the refuge on Morris Island, whose woods hide interesting migrant songbirds to complement all the seabirds and shorebirds. I wasn’t actually there for birding, but three Clay-colored Sparrows together by the parking lot enticed me to poke around a bit – even one of these rare sparrows would have been exciting, so migration was clearly afoot. A Lark Sparrow, another rarity hailing from the western US, was sitting quietly in a tree nearby. I found warblers and vireos in every flock of chickadees, including uncommon species like Canada Warbler and Philadelphia Vireo.

After hiking out to the refuge beach, I remembered someone had found a rare Franklin’s Gull here a couple of days earlier. My luck held, as a quick scan of the loafing Laughing Gull flock and there it was, a small gull that took a wrong turn on its way from the Canadian prairies to Peru, where Franklin’s Gulls winter by the hundreds of thousands. This gull standing around on the Monomoy beach is currently the only member of its species on the entire east coast. I visited the spot again with friends and family a few days later, including promising young birder Anwyn, and we saw a young Peregrine Falcon sitting on one sandbar and 150 American Oystercatchers sleeping on the next one over – nowhere but Monomoy could you see a scene like this in New England.

If you can’t get there, we have lots of places here on the Cape and Islands hosting big numbers of birds right now, from Siasconset to Aquinnah and Sandwich to P’town. But if you do get to Monomoy, you’re all but guaranteed a front row seat to the bird show. But be prepared, because it’s cast of thousands.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.