Old Birds Made New

I had high hopes for Salt Pond, but it was a slow morning. Aside from the ubiquitous Gray Catbirds scolding me with wheezy meows from every shadowed thicket and a pair of Downy Woodpeckers chasing each other up the trunk of a dead snag, there was very little going on.

Gray Catbird
In southwest Cape Cod, it seemed to me that Gray Catbirds might outnumber all the other species put together.
Downy Woodpecker
A Downy Woodpecker scoots along a dead limb at Salt Pond.

I wasn’t discouraged, exactly, but after 90 quiet minutes I didn’t see much point in lingering, especially since the mosquitoes were as active as the bird weren’t, swarming out of the reedy brush to attack my arms and legs whenever I paused. I picked up my pace.

Suddenly a bird streaked low overhead from behind me and swooped up to light on the tip of a bare branch.

Eastern Kingbird

Handsome fellow in a dark charcoal suit, with a narrow strip of bright white at the tip of the tail. Whoa, I thought. That’s an Eastern Kingbird!

Eastern Kingbirds, bold tyrant flycatchers fond of surveying their surroundings from open field fence rails and the tops of trees, are not uncommon. Back home in North Carolina, they’re not everyday birds, certainly, but I see them fairly often.

Eastern Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird, a handsome flycatcher in a dark suit.

But I wasn’t in North Carolina. I was in Massachusetts, and I’d been birding there every day for a solid week. I’d seen lots of birds, but not, until now, an Eastern Kingbird. To be honest, the possibility of Eastern Kingbirds hadn’t even crossed my mind.

So when this one appeared literally out of the blue, it gave me a little shot of surprised delight. It was like bumping into a friend from home in a faraway place. It reminded me that much of birding is about context; it’s not only what you see, it’s when and where and how you see it.

Thickets Thick With Birds

We were spending the first week of August in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the most southwesterly point on Cape Cod. The rocky shoreline, coastal thickets, and deep forests that surround the village are thick with birds.

Along the waterline, Spotted and Least Sandpipers pick their way among thick brown ribbons of beached seaweed and pebbles the size of hen’s eggs. Imposing Great Black-backed Gulls float overhead.

Double-crested Cormorant
A Double-crested Cormorant performs its sun salutations looking toward Martha’s Vineyard.
Spotted Sandpiper
A Spotted Sandpiper tiptoes among the rocks on the shore of Vineyard Sound.
Least Sandpiper
A Least Sandpiper forages at the tide line.

Further inland, in the reeds and woods around the “kettle” ponds scooped out by ancient glaciers, mobs of Black-capped Chickadees flit among the branches. American Goldfinches hurry from one perch to the next, their “per-chicory” flight song trailing in the breeze, and Yellow Warblers shimmer as if they were made of sunflowers.

Black-capped Chickadee
Irrepressible foragers, Black-capped Chickadees move in little gangs through the foliage.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler
Some of the thickets are full of Yellow Warblers, which are nice things for thickets to be full of.

And everywhere are Ospreys. Sailors of yore named the body of water to the west after these plentiful and beautiful raptors, using a distinctly unbeautiful term: Buzzards Bay. Nesting platforms offer great looks, and Ospreys on the wing cut through the blue sky above. They’re as common here as Turkey Vultures are back home.

One of the many Ospreys that nest on the southern reaches of Cape Cod.

Birding by Bike

Perhaps the best way for a visitor to bird this part of the cape is to rent a bike and use the Shining Sea bike path to get from one site to another.

Shining Sea bike path
The Shining Sea bike path cuts a straight line on an elevated causeway over the Great Sippewissett Marsh.

The path’s southern stretch hugs the shore, where the white sails of both boats and terns ride the wind between Cape Cod and the soft green ridge of Martha’s Vineyard across the sound. The course then passes through cool stretches of dense forest, across an elevated causeway above the vast Great Sippewissett Marsh, past ponds and former farmlands and even a historic cranberry bog. All along the route, foot trails and opportunities for side excursions intersect the path.

Great Sippewissett Marsh
The Great Sippewissett Marsh, looking from the causeway toward Buzzards Bay.
Red-winged Blackbird
A Red-winged Blackbird at Great Sippewissett Marsh.

I rented wheels for the whole week, and spent part of every day bike-hiking, pedaling out and then disembarking at various points and hoofing it along the beaches, around the kettle ponds, and up and down the wooded trails.

It was a glorious way to bird; the bike allowed me to move quickly from one place to the next, maximizing my birding time, and gave me access to areas that a car couldn’t reach.

My trusty steed.

At the Great Sippiwisset Marsh, an immature Little Blue Heron tried to blend in with a dozen Snowy Egrets, while Green Herons raised their periscope necks above the marsh grass. My spider sense tingled when a sparrow fluttered into a patch of flattened reeds close by, but all my wishing couldn’t turn it from a Song Sparrow into a Saltmarsh.

These Yellowlegs at Great Sippewissett Marsh were too far off for me to be able to differentiate in the field. When I got back to the cabin and looked at the photo, I realized I’d gotten both species in one shot: Lesser on the left, Greater on the right.

In Beebe Woods, I found a deep pine and oak forest, with mazes of trails that traced the contours of a bumpy terrain. I saw more Hairy Woodpeckers there than I’ve seen all year back home, and a flash of red high in an oak tree revealed a preening Scarlet Tanager, impossibly vivid amid the green.

Hairy Woodpecker
A Hairy Woodpecker climbs a tree in Beebe Woods.
Scarlet Tanager
A Scarlet Tanager still growing into its full scarlet glory in Beebe Woods.

Context Matters

One of the great pleasures of travel is finding new birds. I didn’t see many on this trip. Almost all the birds I saw were species I fairly regularly see back home. But seeing them in a new place was a different sort of pleasure. Birding is about appreciating not only the birds, but the environments in which they live. Seeing familiar birds in new surroundings almost made them new birds.

So when that Eastern Kingbird flashed by over my shoulder, it gave me an extra little jolt. The same thing happened when a rustling near the top of a trailside tree one morning turned out be a trio of Cedar Waxwings.

Cedar Waxwing
A trio of Cedar Waxwings surprised me at Salt Pond one morning.

These weren’t transcendent sightings; it’s not as if a Cerulean Warbler or Snowy Owl had suddenly materialized. But they were small moments when something familiar turned up  in an unexpected place, and each time it gave the day a little extra sparkle. It reminded me that one of the joys of birding is the possibility that something surprising and wonderful — even something you know well — might at any moment streak past your shoulder.


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