Bird Watcher's General Store

Fort Hill, A Cape Cod Birding Gem

Cape Cod Birding:

A few readers have pointed out that Iíve written a lot about my birding travels, but not so much about local spots. They are right; I should write more about Cape Cod birding. Besides, traveling is getting expensive (Iíve run out of friends to mooch off of) and a hassle (I have to pack clean underwear). By writing about local birding all I have to do is open the door and go for a walk. Even I can put forth that much effort.

When I first began bird watching my favorite place to go was Fort Hill in Eastham (MA). Forty years later, it is still my favorite. Why? To begin with itís directly off Route 6, so itís wicked easy to get to. Itís also absolutely free. There isnít even one of those guilt-laden donation boxes to pass by. And there are always plenty of birds. According to eBird (a website for bird freaks), over 260 different species have been identified at Fort Hill. But even without birds, Fort Hill is a place everyone should visit. Thatís because Fort Hill is hands-down the most beautiful property on Cape Cod. I know some folks may think other locations are more attractive, but they are just kidding themselves. Whereís a better place, Sandy Neck? Nope. How about the Chatham Fish Pier? Oh, please. Even the dunes of Provincetown canít compete with Fort Hill. I mean really, how much sand can a person stare at? Fort Hill is stunning in the summer, stunning in the winter and stunning at sunrise and sunset. Letís check it out.

There are two parking areas at Fort Hill and I always park in the first one (the lower parking lot), which is across from the Captain Penniman House. The upper parking lot has better views, but itís always clogged with people taking selfies. FYI: Pets are not allowed at Fort Hill; consequently, you donít have to watch where you step. But there is poison ivy, so donít do any bushwhacking or you are going to need ďan ocean of Calamine lotion.Ē

This time of year itís best to get to Fort Hill early. On my most recent visit I arrived at 7:00 am and Iím glad I did. For the first hour of my walk I saw only one other person: a middle-aged man wearing lime green shorts and a fanny pack. (Gee, I wonder why he was alone.) From the parking lot I turned left and immediately found a pair of catbirds feeding berries to their hungry babies. In the next tree was a rather unsightly, and seriously molting mockingbird that looked as if it had just lost a pillow fight. While I was laughing at the mockingbird I turned and saw something big staring at me. It was a mother white-tailed deer with her baby, which was still covered in spots and walking on awkward legs. I have made thousands of trips to Fort Hill before, but this was the first time Iíve ever seen a deer family. They must have been on vacation.

As I continued along the trail the big field on my right was alive with swallows and kingbirds. Kingbirds are fairly small birds, but they are the tough guys of the neighborhood. Theyíll attack any bird, anytime. On this day I saw one go after a crow that was sitting on the top of a tree, minding its own business. The kingbird whacked the much larger crow in the head a few times and then continued on its way. The confused crow looked down at me as if to say, ďWhat was that all about?Ē I didnít answer.

Next I passed a sign for the Red Maple Swamp; donít bother with that. That trail has been neglected for years and there are no improvements in sight. Instead, continue through a wooded area and to Skiff Hill, the site of an ancient sharpening rock. This is where Native Americans sharpened their arrows and other toolsÖbefore Ace Hardware came to town. The area in front of the rock offers stunning views of the great Nauset Marsh. From here I could see herons, egrets and a variety of terns and shorebirds. I could also see the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. As I scanned the surf for seabirds, I noticed something big in the water. It was a whale, an honest-to-goodness whale! How about that? On one side of me was a family of deer and on the other side I could see whales feeding. Fort Hill is the best.

Leaving the sharpening stone I turned and headed back towards the big field and followed the trail along the edge of the marsh. Hereís where Fort Hill became even more beautiful. In addition to the spectacular views of the grassy-green marsh, the adjoining field was filled with acres of Queen Anneís lace and colorful beach pea. But the most bird-friendly plant was the chicory, which seemed to be blooming with hungry goldfinches. At this point, the trail began to go up an incline (Fort Hill, after all, is an actual a hill but donít worry, thereís no fort). When I arrived at the top parking lot it was beginning to fill up with the selfie crowd. The majority of these folks never left the parking lot and thus missed most of the nature show. I felt bad for them. Five minutes later I was back at my car counting the number of bird species I had seen, which was nearly thirty. The number might have been higher, but the storks that nest on the roof of the Penniman House had already left for the season. Oh, well. Iím sure theyíll be back on April 1st.

By all means, put Fort Hill high on your to-do list. From whales, to birds, to deer, to wildflowers, Fort Hill is always amazing and always beautifulÖalthough it might take me a while to get the image of that guy and his lime green shorts and fanny pack out of my head.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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