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Cape Cod Hawk Watch

Dear Bird Folks,

Where is the Cape’s “hawk watch”? Often in Mass Audubon’s weekly list of wildlife sightings, a large number of hawks are reported at the hawk watch, but it never says where it is. Do you have any idea where this mythical hawk watching location is?

– Paul, Osterville, MA


Yes, I do, Paul,

I do know where the hawk watch is, but you shouldn’t feel bad that you don’t. Not that long ago I didn’t know where it was either…and it’s my job to know these things. However, that all changed last spring when George Martin took me there. (No, not Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ late producer. This George Martin is just a guy from Brewster I know who, the last time I checked, is still alive (Although with this George, it’s sometimes hard to tell.)

Finding the hawk watch is easy, just head up Rt. 6 towards Truro. When you get to N. Truro, look on the right for a National Seashore sign that reads, “Pilgrim Heights.” I know Pilgrim Heights sounds like a place where Governor Bradford built his trophy home, but it’s actually a wonderful property. The area is complete with nature trails, a gazebo, restrooms and a massive parking lot that is at least fifty times larger than it needs to be. After you park, walk through the gazebo and look for the sign for Small’s Swamp Nature Trail. Head down this trail, and when you come to a fork…take it (RIP, Yogi). The trail is a loop, so either way is fine, but you’ll get to the hawk watch faster if you take the right fork. After a two-minute hike you’ll come to an overlook with one of the most spectacular views on the entire Cape…or anywhere else. In the valley below you’ll see blooming shadbush, beach plums, and a slow-moving river. Beyond the river are the Cape’s iconic sand dunes, and finally, the mighty Atlantic Ocean. You’ll want to stand there and stare forever, but don’t forget you are there to look for hawks. Continue on the trail for a few more feet where you’ll find another stunning overlook. This is the mythical hawk watching sight. You’ve arrived.

I’ve been to the hawk watch several times this spring and each time I go, I’m immediately greeted by two guys sporting beards so full they would make Grizzly Adams jealous. They also happen to be the Cape’s premier hawk watchers. Don Manchester has been manning the hawk watch for more than sixteen years and is often accompanied by his friend, Michael. (I don’t know Michael’s last name, but with such an awesome first name no other name is needed.) Don tells me that this particular day has been slow and explains why. It’s an east wind. Hawks, and other migrating birds, tend to take advantage of tail winds. If the wind is blowing from the east, the birds move inland. But a southwest wind will push them along the coast and over the Cape. This is the wind direction Don loves. While we wait to see if any hawks show up, Don tells me about the uncommon birds he has seen over the years. There have been eagles, kites and a rare sighting of a Swainson’s Hawk. Don also regularly sees non-hawk creatures, including bitterns, breeching whales and on one occasion, a friendly fisher that he met along the trail.

Right in the middle of one his stories, Don interrupts himself and says, “Here comes a sharpie.” This is hip birder talk for a Sharp-shinned Hawk, which is a fast-moving, Blue Jay-sized hawk. As I searched the wide-open sky for the tiny hawk, Michael yells, “Here comes another one.” Then he calls to me, “Do you see them, Mike?” No, I didn’t see anything except clouds, but I didn’t want to admit it, so I pretended I didn’t hear him. Finally, I locked onto the pair and was totally amused when the second sharpie started to attack the first one. “What is that all about?” I asked. Don explained that young sharpies love to mix it up during migration. Ginny, another hawk watcher who had just arrived, likened the hawks to two bored brothers riding in the backseat of the car. They have nothing to do on the long trip but annoy each other. I loved that analogy and can totally identify with it.

A few minutes later a Broad-winged Hawk flew by. Then a Merlin, a small falcon, was spotted, followed by an even smaller falcon, an American Kestrel. Things were now picking up. By the time I had to head back to Orleans, the count was up to forty hawks, which seemed like a lot to me, but Don says sometimes they see hundreds of raptors in a single day…if the wind is right.

I thanked Don and Michael for all the stories and raptor info and headed off. In an effort to make my outing last a bit longer, I took the long loop back to the parking lot. From the hawk watch, the trail descends into the valley below and through a lovely stand of poplars, or aspens, or some kind of tall trees that aren’t pines. I’m glad I took the long way back because on my walk I spotted several Black and White Warblers, a few Yellow Warblers, several Eastern Towhees and one very handsome Hermit Thrush. Seeing those peppy songbirds capped off a nice visit to the hawk watch. And even though the longer walk made me late for work, I wasn’t worried. My boss won’t notice. He’s not the brightest guy in the world.

You should totally put visiting the hawk watch on your schedule, Paul. You can go there just about any day in the spring, from late April through most of June (if the weather is decent). Don and Michael will be happy you came. You’ll know who is who right away. Don is the one with the awesome stories and Michael is the one with the awesome name.