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Bird-a-thon aftermath

As the dust settles on another Mass Audubon Bird-a-thon weekend, it’s time to catch up with all that went down. Wild-eyed birders from all over the state descended upon the Cape and Islands from Friday evening through Saturday evening, hoping to feast on the seabirds, shorebirds, and rare migrant songbirds we are known for, all in the name of competition.

Two person tactical hit squads, representing one or another Mass Audubon region, were deployed with various missions. Some hopped a Friday ferry to secure Barn Owl and Black Skimmer on Martha’s Vineyard, others got themselves out to Race Point in Provincetown Saturday morning for a chance at seabirds one cannot easily see anywhere else, like the well named, mostly Old World Little Gull, the puffin cousin known as the Common Murre, and other lingering winter seabirds like the huge and ghostly Glaucous Gull. Others repeatedly circled the trails at the Beech Forest in Provincetown like cars at the Orleans rotary, peering into the developing oak leaf clusters for warblers and tanagers.

As for me, my brothers and I birded our usual route entirely within the town of Plymouth. My mostly non-birding brother, who is more of a golfing and fishing guy, increasingly tags along with us these days, even bringing an even less bird-adjacent friend, who we are ever so slowly assimilating into the ranks of the birdwatchers. The sound ID feature on Cornell’s Merlin app is helping to hook new people all the time – these guys were running it constantly to see what was singing around them. Sensing that I was being replaced by technology like some 1980s auto worker, I huffily pointed out whenever Merlin missed or misidentified a species.

For us to approach our species record for this Plymouth route, we know we must get at least 20 species of warblers, if not more. By early afternoon we had 21, so I knew we had a chance. Later in the day we focus on things like easily accessible Bobolinks and Bald Eagles, then crash and burn on a 5-mile Plymouth Beach death march for shorebirds and seabirds, hoping we get everything before the clock hits 6PM. We hit on most of our expected species at the beach, plus ones we don’t always get like American Oystercatcher, and ones we almost never get, like Lesser Black-backed Gull. On big birding days, there are always inexplicable misses, and ours was Sanderling, perhaps the most common shorebird at this time – we didn’t see any until after 6, when small flock taunted us right by where we had parked. But we ended the day with 135 species – not bad for 24 hours in one town.

While birds are the focus, being out in lovely natural areas all day has other benefits. As often happens, some of my favorite moments involved mammals, including watching a mink swimming around in Cape Cod Bay at Manomet Point. Mink are versatile, relatively aquatic weasels - they like to live among the rocks at the coast and dive for fish like a little otter. I once saw one come up with a cunner along the canal in Sandwich. We also stumbled upon a brand-new white-tailed deer fawn, colored like a bit of dappled shade, curled up in the spot where its mom had hidden it just a few feet from a road. It stayed frozen, hoping its camouflage would keep it alive another day.

I could list all the fancy species turned up by the competitors this weekend, but it would be numbing, like reading from a bird phonebook. Well over 200 bird species have been recorded on the Cape just since Friday. Migration is peaking right now, so it’s not too late to get in on it – I had 8 species of warbler singing out my back door yesterday morning. So get yourself out there. You can even turn on your Merlin Sound ID app if you want. But why use Artificial Intelligence when you can have my somewhat average to below average intelligence? When you really want to know what birds are there, you call me.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.