Migration Highlights: Shorebirds, Songbirds, Seabirds, & Raptors
Cape Cod can be a great spot for birding during spring migration. Limited land concentrates the birds into a few key areas. Late foliage makes songbird viewing easier.
Although mid-summer through fall is traditionally the best time for birding on Cape Cod, spring offers plenty of birds and fewer people. Starting from Provincetown and working along the Outer Cape to Chatham’s South Beach provides a range of species and habitats.
Songbirds in the Beech Forest
The later arrival of spring weather keeps the trees on Cape Cod from going into full leaf for several weeks after the mainland. This makes elusive songbirds, in recognizable plumage and full voice, easier to spot. A great place to check them out is the Beech Forest, which is near Race Point in the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Follow the bike trail into the forest, then explore the ponds and woods. This area is best visited in the early morning when the birds are active and the humans less so. On a good day, it will be possible to see as many as 20 species of warbler, along with a good number of the common eastern Massachusetts songbirds.
Race Point Seabirds
When the Beech Forest fills with humans, move on to Race Point itself, especially if there has been a recent northeast storm. Look for razorbills, guillemots, terns, gulls, and even shearwaters or jaegers if conditions are right. A few sea ducks might be present as well. And don’t forget to watch for blows as fin and humpback whales often come close to shore in this area. There is also a good possibility that a seal or two will cruise the waters next to the beach.
As you leave Race Point take a brief stop at Pilgrim Lake to the left on Route 6, the main highway running the length of the Cape, to catch the last of the winter ducks before they leave.
Raptors at Pilgrim Heights
The next stop is Pilgrim Heights, just a short distance past the lake, also on the left. Once on the trail, take the first fork to the right and follow it to the first watchpoint. After viewing from there continue on to the second watchpoint. Between March and June, Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary sponsors a hawk watch here. If time permits visit the sanctuary itself in Wellfleet, which offers a variety of habitats and species.
South Beach’s Shorebirds
For the best shorebird viewing, take the Rip Ryder shuttle ferry and plan to spend the better part of a day on South Beach in Chatham. Once separated from South Monomoy Island, storms in 2005 connected the two so access to roosting and nesting areas are greatly increased. Please respect the birds when walking this area as good habitat for these species is becoming increasingly rare on Cape Cod.
While wet feet getting into and out of the ferry is a guarantee so is the amazing experience of being surrounded by hundreds of waders once on the shore. The best time to start the trip is on the high tide, walking back along the beach to the more highly human-populated section in time to catch a ferry back.
Counting 25 species in one day is a real possibility here. In addition to the shorebirds, good views of pelagic species are likely. As a bonus, grey seals are nearly guaranteed as they feed regularly in these waters.
With plenty of places to stay on Cape Cod, it is easy to plan a bird watching trip for any budget.