Ian Gardner, Josh Lefever, and I woke up on the morning of November 19th to the calls of Virginia Rails. We had set up camp the night before near High Head, near Provincetown – the tip of the Cape Cod peninsula. As we crawled out of our sleeping bags and into the cool morning air, birds were all over. Seven species of waterfowl were floating out on the lake nearby, including our first Common Goldeneyes of our trip through New England. Two brown Northern Harriers were cruising over the marsh in the distance and Yellow-rumped Warblers were filling the brush nearby.
This was the first day of our quick tour of New England to finally take our time and spend a full day in a very small area. We decided to walk around the High Head/Pilgrim Heights area for two hours and then head over to MacMillan Wharf in Provincetown and work our way east along the tip of Cape Cod. We ultimately wanted to spend the majority of the day sea-watching from the Race Point area.
Birding around High Head was great and really started us off for a fantastic day. We found 39 species in under two hours of walking around the area, many of which were new Massachusetts state birds for the three of us. The highlight, however, was that we saw exactly 100 White-winged Crossbills. All were flyover flocks (53, 12, 15, and 20) that we first heard calling and then frantically scanned the sky until one of the three of us spotted the flock passing over. We had had bad luck with crossbills up until that point in the trip, so seeing 100 was a nice change of pace.
After a quick stop at a gas station for breakfast, we arrived at MacMillan Wharf by 9:15am. We were hoping to find a few alcids and waterfowl around area. After scanning around the whole area we could only find various sea ducks but that was alright with us. At least 40 Common Eiders were loafing around the docks as well as Brant, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Mergansers, and our first Long-tailed Duck of the trip. The main jetty that you could see from the wharf was loaded with at least 20 Great Cormorants and looked perfect for Purple Sandpipers. It wasn’t long before Ian and Josh spotted one mixed in with Ruddy Turnstones.
Next stop was the jetty at First Landing Park. We had a better view of the open water from there and could see loads of waterfowl around the area, including at least 60 Brant. Most of the area along the jetty was mudflats and we scanned through the shorebirds to see what was around – Black-bellied Plovers, Sanderlings, Dunlin, and Ruddy Turnstones. There were quite a few gulls as well, but all were Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed. The most exciting find of this stop was an adult Snowy Egret! We were only able to get quick and fairly distant looks at the egret, mainly in flight but are pretty sure it is a Snowy. Feel free to tell me why it is actually a Little Egret. After about 20 minutes, we turned around and walked back along the jetty to my car.
From there, we went to nearby Herring Cove Beach. This is where we had our first really great looks out on to the ocean. There were literally thousands of sea ducks out on the water, both floating groups and flyby flocks. We parked my car and jumped out – grabbing the spotting scopes to start scanning through the birds. We counted at least 1000 Common Eiders in 15 minutes as well as all three scoter species (including 300 White-winged) and Bufflehead. The real show was the Red-breasted Mergansers. We counted at least 3000 Red-breasted Mergs from Herring Cove Beach. Common Loons, both species of cormorants, and Northern Gannets were also showing off. While scanning through ducks, I came across two distant gulls. Something about their flight style stood out and I followed them as they approached closer. Two adult Black-legged Kittiwakes! I got Josh and Ian on them and we watched them plunge-dive like uncoordinated terns for a few minutes and fly around the area, before they moved off. This really got us excited for Race Point, which based on the eBird reports we had seen, would really be the best sea-watching location. As we were loading back into my car, we heard another flock of White-winged Crossbills overhead but never spotted them.
Check back for photos and details about our time at Race Point – look forward to some alcid and kittiwake photos!