Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Shifting Sands Make Birding Challenging
August 10, 2013
By Steve Grinley

     Margo and I headed to South Beach off of Chatham on Cape Cod as we do every year around this time. South Beach is a great stop-over for migrating terns and shorebirds, a place for them to re-fuel before proceeding over the Atlantic Ocean on their way south. There the number of birds is usually staggering, and challenges the patience and observation skills of even the keenest birders to find the more unusual among the thousands of “regulars.”

     The topography of South Beach has dramatically this past year, with another breach occurring during the Nemo storm in February. Ocean water pours in about a mile and a half below lighthouse beach, near the area known as the “washover” where a previous breach had occurred years ago, and subsequently had filled back in. This new breach carries with it more sand to be deposited in area between South Beach and Monomoy to the west.

     We travelled with our friends Francois and Leah for Montreal, from the Outermost Marina, one of two licensed carriers to South Beach. We happened to also be accompanied by a small group from Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, who was being shuttled to North Monomoy for nature study. There was a northerly wind making the air very chilly and the water choppy as we left the Marina. We were warmed by the sight of a black skimmer lying on the warm beach sand as we left the harbor.

     Since it was only a couple of hours after low tide when we departed, much new sand was exposed, making the area almost unrecognizable to those of us who hadn’t seen it for a year. The new look of South Beach and the surrounding waters made navigation a challenge even for Captain Phil of Outermost, who knows these waters as well as anyone. We weaved our way slowly past buoys, but we still managed to catch a sand bar between South Beach and North Monomoy. Efforts to push us off were unsuccessful. The Audubon group decided to wade the rest of the way, about 200 yards, to North Monomoy. Since we were still north of the breach on South Beach, we waited it out for almost an hour before lifting free with the oncoming tide.

     Once we made it to the “lagoon area”, we waded ashore and proceeded down the beach toward the “connection” or “crossover” – where sand had been deposited connecting South Beach to Monomoy some years ago. Along the way, there were hundreds of semipalmated and least sandpipers. There were even more semipalmated plovers. Also in the mix were handsome ruddy turnstones, lesser and greater yellowlegs and willets. We also saw the smaller, grayer willet subspecies, the western willet.

     Short-billed dowitchers were also feeding along the water’s edge and we did see a few American oystercatchers, with their long, thick red bills contrasting with their bold black and white plumage. We saw common and roseate terns, and the only unusual gull of the journey, a lesser black-backed gull among the more common herring and great black-backed gulls.

     When we neared the crossover, we found our first Hudsonian godwits. A few were roosting, and others were feeding along the edge of the water. We would eventually encounter more than fifty of them, but we didn’t find a marbled godwit that had been previously reported there. We did see two black terns, our first ones of the year, among the common terns that were all around.

     After having lunch, we decided to walk back to the pickup spot along the ocean side, as the higher tide would make for tough walking through the marsh grasses. There were hundreds, if not thousands of seals on the beach side at the crossover, but we didn’t see any sharks. There were only small scattered pockets of roosting shorebirds as the tide came in. In years past, many of the shorebirds were in large concentrations amid the beach grasses.

     Terns were feeding in good numbers over the ocean and though we spotted a few shearwaters flying by, we didn’t see any jaegers this trip. As we neared the pickup area at the washover, we did get to see an arctic tern, which was especially satisfying to me. I just don’t get to see them every year.

     We spent 3 more days on the Cape and the main highlight was a good showing of all 4 shearwater species and a couple of parasitic jaegers from Newcomb Hollow in Truro. There were also a number of whales visible offshore as well. We also had great looks at, and Margo got photos of, a yellow-crowned night heron in Hyannis. Overall, it was a nice long weekend on the Cape.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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