Bird Watcher's General Store

The Most Spectacular Bird Sightings in 75 Years Expected
When the Cape Cod Canal is Drained for Bridge Inspection
03/26/11


Dear Bird Folks,

I’ve lived in a house on White Horse Beach in Plymouth (MA) for the past fifteen years. Recently, I’ve noticed clouds of birds gathering way off shore. Through my spotting scope I can see lots of gulls, plus many more unusual seabirds. In all of the years I’ve been here, I have never seen anything like this before. It’s almost scary. Any idea what is going on?

– Ted, Plymouth, MA

Calm down, Ted,

In my business we call what you are experiencing “the Alfred Hitchcock Syndrome.” Anytime people see a large flock of birds, they immediately think the creatures are taking over the world. Folks get most worked up over flocks of birds in the fall when hundreds of migrating grackles pass through local neighborhoods. Spring migration rarely causes concern. (After a long winter, any sign of life is welcomed.) You may find it comforting to know that quite a few other people have also noticed the “clouds of birds” of which you speak. I can assure you that the apocalypse is not upon us. These birds have been expected and are the direct result of human interference. However, in this case, the interference is nothing sinister. It’s all for a good cause. Let me explain.

Since the Cape Cod Canal bridges were built in 1935, they have been in a constant state of routine maintenance. I think we all remember the aggravation work crews caused a few years ago. Fortunately, the next sections of the bridges to be serviced won’t inconvenience any of us. The only ones to be disturbed by this next project will be fish. The original maintenance plans for the bridges call for the supports to be “dry” inspected after seventy-five years. A dry inspection is just what the term suggests, without water. That means in order to do the inspection, water has to be kept away from the bridges’ cement footings. The seventy-fifth anniversary was last year, but apparently the Army Corps of Engineers wasn’t ready for the inspection then. They’re ready now. I’ve read about their plan and it’s a doozey. And I don’t even know what a “doozey” is.

Next week, the Corps is going to actually drain the entire Canal. I know it sounds impossible, but don’t tell them that…they’ve had this plan in place since 1935. This is how it’s going to go down. During next Friday’s high tide, they will drop thick, steel bulkheads into the Canal. The bulkheads will be attached to the trusses on the train bridge and lowered into the water. The bulkheads will line up with fittings that are on the Canal floor, placed there way back during the original construction. As the tide recedes, the Canal will actually drain itself into Cape Cod Bay, while the bulkheads keep the water from Buzzards Bay from flowing in. (Those engineers are some smart.) Once the water drains out, they’ll have six to eight hours to conduct their critical tests. And while the engineers are running around doing all their testing, every birder on the East Coast will be lining the Canal for what is expected to be the greatest avian show in the last seventy-five years.

Right now, Ted, you are probably wondering why birds and birders would care about a maintenance project. Good question. After decades of daily tidal movements, the Canal floor is pocked with hundreds of fissures and depressions. These depressions will trap and expose tons of fish and somehow the birds know it. Well, actually, they don’t know it yet, but they soon will. In an effort to limit the number of trapped fish, and to prevent all marine mammals from being stranded, the Department of National Marine Fisheries has already placed a series of submerged impulse beacons. The beacons form a long semicircle that stretches from Sandy Neck Beach in Barnstable to your house on White Horse Beach in Plymouth. These beacons, called “Ichthybegones,” have been out there for several weeks. This has caused schools and schools of fish to become backed up at the mouth of the Canal, trying to find a way to get through the electronic barrier.

Because of this massive fish concentration, seabirds from as far north as Greenland and as far south as Trinidad have converged on Cape Cod Bay. Swarms of tropicbirds, pelicans, frigate birds, skuas and even albatross are being seen just offshore, all frantically enjoying the super feast. Right now only birders with powerful scopes can see these birds, but that will all change once the Canal drains. Based on similar canal drainings in Puget Sound and in Foneknee Bay, the birds will quickly abandon the deep water and move in to scoop up the fish trapped in the pools on the Canal floor. (Man, I’d hate to be a fish that day.)

Unfortunately, the Corps won’t let any of us walk on the drained Canal. (How cool would it be to have a few hours to hunt for treasures while the seawater is missing?) However, they are not stopping us from walking the bike trails that run alongside the Canal. Anyone wanting to see this event should go early to grab a spot. Keep in mind, though, you won’t be alone. There’ll be birders from all over. (Watch your wallet.) In addition, National Geographic is going to be filming all of this for an up coming special. (Hollywood, here we come!) I’ve heard that anyone carrying an “I Nat Geo” sign will definitely be on TV, so make a sign and comb your hair. Just remember, it all takes place starting at high tide (10:20 AM) this coming Friday, April 1st.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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