Monday, May 20, 2013

24 hours of fun with Mass Audubon - Part 2 of my bird-a-thon experience

A view from Pilgrim Heights at Dawn, with a marsh and pond in the foreground. This is a great spot to watch raptors as they soar above the dunes. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
When the alarm on my cell phone rang at 3:30 AM on Saturday morning I jumped out of bed, got dressed and stepped outside into the darkness where I saw that two of my teammates were already awake. As my eyes were adjusting to the darkness they motioned for me to come join them, pointing out a strange noise coming from the woods somewhere behind our rooms at the Cape View Motel. It's hard to describe now precisely what it sounded like, but it sounded like a raspy snort of some kind. One person suggested it might be a White-tailed Deer, but noted they only tend to make those kinds of noises when startled, and whatever was making this sound was doing it continuously for at least 5 minutes. Someone else suggested it could be a fox. We didn't find out, but it was yet another example of the many mysteries of nature which can exist literally right outside our doors.

As we climbed haldf-asleep into the vans we drove out in the darkness, headed for Pilgrim Heights to look and listen for birds active at that strange intersection between the night and daylight. When we arrived we walked slowly down a narrow trail, listening to the far-off hooting of a Great-horned Owl still calling and the song of an Eastern Towhee no doubt about to begin its day. Our walk took us on a loop, past an important hawk watching site and down through a wetland and back to the parking lot. It was just as we were coming out of the woods that one of our group heard the distant calling of a Black-billed Cuckoo, a new life bird for me, and a species I had hoped to see the morning before at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. The Cuckoo kept calling as the sun began to peek over the horizon and we stood and listened to it serenade the morning for a few minutes, before heading into Provicentown to check the harbor.

A birder scans the harbor for new species to add to our bird-a-thon list in the early morning light. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
At the harbor we found many of the same species we'd been seeing near the water since the previous day - Laughing Gulls, Common Eider and Double-crested Cormorant, so we headed off again to check out the Beech Forest Trail, another part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Here the trees were in a state of what I would call 3/4 leaf-out, there was just enough leaf cover to attract insects (and hence migrants) and often obscure them from view at first, but there was just enough space for us to see them with a little work. This proved to be one of our best stops of the trip, where I picked up a number of life birds, including Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler and Chestnut-sided Warbler.

After a few more stops on land we headed to Provincetown Harbor where we boarded a whale watching boat that took us out to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. We were hoping to see pelagic species such as shearwaters, but instead we were treated to a fantastic show by Humpback Whales, Minke Whales and White-sided Dolphins who were out in great numbers and very easy to see. We even got to witness a breach in which a Humpback whale lifted itself completely out of the water and came crashing back down again with a thunderous slap on the surface of the sea.

A Humpbacked Whale dives down again after surfacing. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

As much as we looked and looked, not a single pelagic bird species appeared. We saw plenty of Herring Gulls, Laughing Gulls, Double-crested Cormorant and Northern Gannet, but no petrels or shearwaters. We event spotted a lone Chimney Swift swooping over the stern of the boat and disappearing into the sky behind us. I also got to see some interesting interactions between the whales and the gulls which follow these mammoth marine mammals, hoping to grab a meal in the roiling froth created when the whales are feeding. I even saw several gulls land directly on a whale's head and go for a short ride as the animal swam through the water scooping up plankton.

Gulls and other seabirds will often gather near feeding whales, hoping to grab a meal in the chaos created by the feeding habits of these giant marine mammals. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
By the end of the boat trip the lack of sleep had begun to catch up with me, so I sat outside on the deck and enjoyed the peaceful trip back into the harbor, nodding off occasionally as the wind and the humming of the engines lulled me into a restful state. As we approached the entrance to the harbor I got an excellent look at a large group of Double-crested Cormorants which were nesting communally at the end of a long breakwater. I have been seeing these birds around the water my whole life, but I had never seen a nesting colony like this before.

A large group of Double-crested Cormorant nesting at the entrance to Provincetown Harbor. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
We ended our day with a stop at Fort Hill Trail, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. We had some wonderful views here of large meadows, a salt marsh and the ocean in the distance. We stood above the salt marsh for a while, scanning for shorebirds and picked up a Willet, another life bird for me and an addition to our team;s bird-a-thon list. We were also treated to a great view of a juvenile male Orchard Oriole which landed in a nearby tree and gave a spirited performance. As the hour drew close to 6 o'clock we made one last attempt to add birds to the list with a walk through one of the meadows, hoping for a Bobolink or Eastern Meadowlark.  Neither of these grassland species were to be found, however, and we had to be content watching the swallows fill the skies overhead with their evening acrobatics.

In all I added the following 23 species of birds to my New England birding big year list:

Great Crested Flycatcher
Black-bellied Plover
Laughing Gull
Common Tern
Bonaparte's Gull
Least Tern
Green Heron
Virginia Rail
Lesser Yellowlegs
American Woodcock
Eastern Whip-poor-will
Black-billed Cuckoo
Red-eyed Vireo
Northern Parula
Parasitic Jaeger
Magnolia Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Snowy Egret
Blackburnian Warbler
Semipalmated Plover
Orchard Oriole

In  our 24 hours at the end of Cape Cod we saw over 100 species of birds, 7 species of mammals and some of the most beautiful scenery in New England. I can't wait to do it all again next spring.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.


  1. It was great to have you on the Drumlin Farm team this year, Dan, and hope to see you next year too! You mentioned you aren't a huge fan of birding in cemeteries, but maybe Mt. Auburn would change your mind. I found it a little weird and creepy at first but it's a beautiful place and awesome migrant stop.

  2. Thanks for the great writeup and the great blog! The variety of wildlife and habitats right in our own backyard astounds me every time I go out on Bird-a-thon. Looking forward to doing it with you again next year!

  3. Dan, great blog. It's got a great quality about it. I'm a financial advisor/naturalist writer from Amherst, NH. I've been writing about the outdoors for years. I love how your descriptions show both technical proficiency, enthusiasm and the human element.
    The flowers above are Daisy Fleabane (what you called daisies), either common or purple milkweed (hard to say from the picture) and ragged robin (the purplish/pink flower). Great photos, by the way. Good luck with your Big Year!