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Chatham Birding

September morning in Chatham:

In early August, a lady from out of town asked me where she might see some shorebirds. I told her to try Morris Island in Chatham. A few days later the same lady returned saying that she had taken my advice, drove to Morris Island and found lots of shorebirds. How about that? Someone actually listened to me…and it worked. So, today, I decided to follow my own advice and make a quick morning trip to Chatham. (I didn’t want to go in August because things are way too crowded then, and I’m not a fan of crowds…unless they’re shoppers in a certain store.)

I live in Orleans, so you would think nearby Chatham would be a regular birding stop for me, but such is not the case. Like Alabama or Wyoming or Falmouth, Chatham seems too out of the way for some reason. But after a long summer of talking about birds, I decided to actually go look for some.

My first stop was at the aforementioned Morris Island, which is the only section of Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge that we can visit without a boat. It’s accessed via Morris Island Road and a short causeway. After driving across the causeway, you will be confronted with a series of signs (erected by the nearby trophy homeowners) that try to discourage folks from proceeding farther. Ignore those signs. Follow the arrows to the refuge headquarters. Here you will find parking, a visitor center and real restrooms. I arrived at 7:00 AM and the first thing I saw was a man with a giant balloon. The guy proceeded to walk to a clearing, let the balloon go and stroll back inside. What was that all about? Adjacent to the refuge headquarters is Chatham’s famous weather station. Here, twice a day, everyday, they release a weather balloon, just like we read about back in science class. I didn’t realize they still did that, but apparently they do. Either that or the guy was on his way to a party and something went wrong.

I followed the trail to the beach and walked south for ten minutes until I reached the southern tip of Morris Island. From here I could look across the water to North Monomoy. In the old days, folks used to drive to Monomoy, but storms separated it from the rest of the Cape years ago. The resulting mudflats and sandbars are magnets for shorebirds and this is where the lady in the opening sentence had such success. There were plenty of birds on my walk, too. It’s just too bad I couldn’t see them. In addition to trophy homes, Chatham is famous for something else…fog. I could hear shorebirds calling and terns screaming at each other, but the fog was too thick. Sigh. I hung around for a while, hoping it would clear. It didn’t. There also was another problem. The tide was coming in. If I didn’t leave soon, my way back to the parking lot would be cut off. I had to go. Stupid high tide.

I drove back over the causeway and turned left onto Bridge Road. About half a mile down, on the left, there is a Chatham Conservation Foundation sign. Here, with almost no room to park, is a very hidden trail that leads to the Tom’s Neck Conservation Area. This trail is amazing, not so much for birds, but for the experience. The trail cuts through an area of super-thick and very tall reeds. It was like being in a corn maze, a scary corn maze. Then, just to add to the creepiness, the reeds started shaking and a big commotion began heading my way. What the heck? Had I awakened a black rhino or stumbled upon a hobo camp? With my heart racing a bit, I quickly came face-to-face with a pair of equally startled white-tailed deer. After a brief stare-down, the deer retreated into the reeds and I took a deep breath.

When I emerged from Tom’s Neck, the fog had lifted, so I decided to look for shorebirds again. This time I tried Cockle Cove Beach, which is in West Chatham, or South Chatham or some Chatham. I had never been to Cockle Cove before and I can totally see how it earned its name. There were shells everywhere. (When my wife hears about this she’ll be on her way to Cockle Cove, with a plastic bucket. She’s going through a shell-collecting phase right now and this is about to become her favorite beach.)

I walked west for about fifteen minutes, until I reached Mill Creek. This is where I finally found birds, lots and lots of birds. A huge flock, containing several hundred Tree Swallows, sat on the dunes. They were gathering for their trip south and didn’t mind my close approach. Across the creek, in the Forest Beach Conservation Area, dozens of egrets and herons hunted in the marsh and two falcons zipped overhead (look out, swallows). At the end of the beach, sitting on a small peninsula, was an assortment of shorebirds, including willets, Sanderlings, turnstones and yellowlegs. I worked my way down the peninsula, trying to get a better view, when a new bird flew in. I thought it was (it wasn’t) an American Golden Plover, which is a fairly rare bird for Cape Cod. I was so focused on the plover that I failed to notice that I was no longer standing on a “peninsula.” I was on an island. Remember that tide thing we talked about earlier? Well I didn’t. I had to quickly turn around, wade through deep water and walk back to my car in soggy shoes. (I could actually hear the swallows laughing at me.) Stupid high tide.

Both Morris Island and Cockle Cove Beach (and nearby Forest Beach Conservation Area) are good places to see shorebirds in the early fall. Just watch out for the fog and the tides. Also, if you visit Cockle Cove, you’ll have to watch out for something else…a lady with a plastic bucket. She’ll be the one walking next to a guy in soggy shoes.