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Birding in the big city

Ryan Schain

When you think about the best places to go birding on the Cape, I’m guessing Hyannis is not first on your list. If you’re from here, Hyannis is the big city – the place you go once a week, the day after bath day, to get supplies for the homestead or sell your wares. Well, maybe you actually go there for the mall, some semblance of ethnic food, or to catch a ferry. Either way, one of these times you should stay for the birds — there are more than you think lurking in that strip mall jungle.

For one thing, there are a surprising number of little ponds tucked here and there, often next to busy roads and industrial areas, and some are pretty good for ducks. Last week, I stopped at one such pond out behind the airport, a lovely, woodsy pond with marshy shallows, and one I’d never been to. Among the dozens of Mallards and American Black Ducks, and a few Ring-necked Ducks, was a male Wood Duck, one of the great works of art nature has produced. Arrayed in shimmering greens, reds, blues, and browns, these stunners are rare in February, and he may have been the only one on the Cape and Islands that day.

While I was scanning the ducks, I heard the call of a Killdeer flying from the direction of the airport — this is around when these big, noisy plovers of grassy and gravelly areas return from further south. The Killdeer lured me further down this industrial road, where I eventually heard the increasingly rare sound of an American Kestrel calling — I eventually found the bird atop a pole at an electrical substation, from which it had a view of the grassy airport. These small, colorful falcons prefer big open areas, like airports and Crane Wildlife Management Area in Falmouth. Good luck finding them anywhere else these days, as the grassy pine barrens have all turned to mature forest thanks to fire suppression, or to houses thanks to people needing them.

The calling kestrel soon took off heading for a nearby cell phone tower, which I then noticed was already occupied by a Peregrine Falcon. For some reason the big falcon, who could easily have had the kestrel for lunch, gave up its perch to the kestrel. Maybe the peregrine owed the kestrel money, but it seemed odd. Another Killdeer called from the vicinity of the adjacent airport as all this unfolded. Grassy airports can be great for birding, hosting everything from Snowy Owls at Logan to rare Upland Sandpipers at smaller municipal and military airports, plus a host of other declining grassland birds like Eastern Meadowlarks.

Hyannis has hosted its share of grade-A rare birds as well, the kind that bring people here from off-Cape, like a Little Egret, a species from Europe, and a Gray Kingbird, a Caribbean species, to name two. Over the last ten-plus years, it’s also the most reliable place in the state to find a rare European gull known as the Black-headed Gull — sometimes two can be found at Ocean Avenue and other nearby beaches.

On my Hyannis visit, over maybe 20 minutes on some back road, I had several uncommon birds. I never ended up getting my car inspected as I was planning to do that day — as often happens, I used up my errand window on birding. If you start looking around a bit more, you may find the same thing happening to you the next time you visit Hyannis. Just don’t forget to take your weekly bath before you go — you don’t want to seem like a bumpkin when you visit the big city.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.