In our region, April is a time of transition. Weather is unpredictable, birds are in migration, amphibians are slowly awakening, buds on trees are few, and the salt marshes are a dull brown. One has to work to find life on a somewhat barren coastal landscape. From a dusk hike at the Lloyd Center, to the tip of Cape Cod, and on a return trip to Cuttyhunk, mostly great weather and some luck resulted in opportunistic sightings.
On the evening spring wildlife walk, held fittingly on April Fool’s Day, the day was cold and brisk and it seemed the evening would be a lost cause. However, winds subsided and skies were clear for stellar conditions. After a quick look at Koko (the Center’s resident Screech Owl), participants were greeted by a flurry of feeder birds. Northern Cardinal, Red Bellied and Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Mourning Dove, and Red-winged Blackbirds were all in for a late day feed. As we walked down the Hardscrabble Farm Loop trail toward the freshwater Kettle Pond (also a vernal pool), the source of the raucous Red-wing chorus was evident, as Red-wings are the one bird species that nest within the Phragmites stand that became established in the pond long ago. Enough water remains to attract amphibians associated with wetlands, including vernal pools, with spring peeper and pickerel frog both calling loudly throughout the pool.
From the dock, great views of the mouth of the Slocum River estuary are offered. Small flocks of Bufflehead ducks still remnant from the winter were visible in the estuary, along with the distant osprey platforms on the salt marsh, all three of which were vacant. However, when returning across the salt marsh pass toward the new pavilion, attendees were rewarded with a stunning display of as many as four silhouettes crossing the dusk skyline, a small flock of Ospreys making an evening visit to the Lloyd Center platform. One appeared to have a Cardinal in its talons! The evening birding wasn’t over, as the group headed back toward the “Lloyd Woods” in hopes of attracting the Barred Owls with callback tapes. Although no response occurred there, two Barred Owls, surely the breeding pair, called loudly from the Forest Management trail from close range during our return trip up the driveway.
Another group ventured to the outer Cape in hopes of viewing whales close to shore. First stop was Herring Cove Beach where we stretched our legs after the long drive and waited for light rain to pass. Low tides offered great looks at winter waterbirds, including Common Loons and sea ducks, mostly Common Eider and Red-breasted Mergansers. Next stop was the Province Lands Visitor’s Center which offered unmatched panoramic views of the pristine Cape dune system and the iconic Race Point Lighthouse from the balcony. Skies cleared and temperature increased for perfect hiking conditions!
The group passed through a pitch pine forest ecosystem and out toward the long Hatches Harbor dike which bisects the vast salt marsh. Along the forest stretch, two obscure forest interior birds were seen, the Hairy Woodpecker and the Brown Creeper, surely migrants on the move. While crossing the dike the group saw how tides impact a salt marsh and how the dike itself influences creek flow and plant growth. The large creek had waterfowl, including a very photogenic eider in molt and some American Black Ducks among others. After walking the shore a stretch, we crossed the dune prior to the shorebird refuge, where a pair of piping plovers called and flew in front of us. We then reached the beach at the true tip of the Cape, the “fist” that is Race Point Beach, where we began the search for whales.
It was nearly a dead calm on the bay, perfect for viewing waterbirds and whales, and it wasn’t long before activity was noticed. A Minke Whale was feeding not far offshore at the break, and either dolphins or porpoises were passing through. As we walked around the tip, things became quiet and we wondered if we’d seen our last whale. Around high noon, a tail in the far distance, a fin closer to shore, a snout further down. Whales! A “pod” was moving through, including the unmistakable and endangered Right Whale, for which about 500 remain in the wild. The patchwork of barnacles over the head and highly curved mouth were confirmation, and two Right Whales were visible at close range frolicking and feeding in the waters for many minutes. A plane circling them overhead were an additional hint that they were the endangered species, and perhaps the mother and calf which were reportedly seen in Cape Cod Bay. Other birds seen at Race Point included nice looks at a flock of White-winged Scoters in flight, Red-throated Loons, Northern Gannets, and a sizeable flock of Iceland Gulls.
On April 13, our luck with stellar weather ran out, but rain didn’t stop a large group from boarding the Cuttyhunk Ferry Company vessel to view the seals on Gull Island. After receiving some background and history about landmarks in the harbor and Buzzards Bay science, including the extensive geomorphology that shaped the bay long ago, the boat reached the seals where Lloyd Center staff provided education about these fascinating creatures. At this early spring juncture, most Harbor Seals had left the area, with all but a handful of individuals being Grey Seals. Greys breed locally including the growing Monomoy Island population that attracts the Great White Sharks. Grey Seal pups are also born late winter so many juveniles were visible. The tide had risen and the seals were skittish, so many seal heads were visible and afloat near Gull Island. Close-up looks of a few Greys hauled out on rocks gave the group a good look at the “Horsehead” snout that Gray seals have.
On the island, the hardy group grabbed their rain gear and headed up to the lookout area, clearly un-phased by the rain, in what were quite warm and pleasant conditions. Folks at the Natural History Museum and school kindly allowed for visits of those facilities where the group received further background and history about the island. While the dense fog unfortunately eliminated the iconic views, the openness and tranquility of the island still had the group transfixed. They learned that the lookout was used by ship spotters during the whaling era, and the bunkers further down the walking path had been used during World War II. Cuttyhunk is a “Drumlin”, a rock pile deposited when the glacier receded, and contains mostly low, shrubby undergrowth from when English settlers cleared land once occupied by the Wampanoag Indians. The group gained a sense of these features firsthand while walking the terrain.
Check out our events calendar and come out for other walks and events to be held!
by Jamie Bogart, Lloyd Center Research Associate