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Loons And Other Cool Birds in the Cape Cod Canal

Dear Bird Folks,

A friend of mine is visiting from out of town and wants to do some local birding. In particular, she wants to see a loon. Is there a good place on Cape Cod to see loons or should we drive up to Maine?

– Linda, Brewster, MA


Not Maine, Linda,

Don’t drive up to Maine. Cape Cod has everything Maine has, except big trees, mountains and black flies. And, in spite of what some people think, we also have lots of loons. In fact, one of the best places to see loons (in the spring) is in the Cape Cod Canal, or at least I think it is. Maybe I’ll take a quick trip to the Canal and see if I’m right. Stay tuned.

For some reason the area around the Canal seems to have its own private weather. It was a pleasant spring day when I left Orleans, but not at the Canal. The wind screaming off Cape Cod Bay was so strong that I spent more time chasing after my hat than I did looking for birds. After five minutes, I got back in the car and headed for the nearest place to buy a muffin, and to plan for another attempt tomorrow. The next day was also sunny and fairly warm, so once again I drove to the Canal and once again things were totally different. But instead of wind, it was cloudy, cold and foggy. I can handle clouds and fog, so I decided to stay this time. Besides, I was getting tired of making the long drive, and wasn’t in the mood for another muffin.

Many of us on the Outer Cape probably have never taken the time to appreciate the area around the Canal, but we are missing out. In addition to the two bike paths that run along both sides, there are numerous parking areas, restrooms, visitor centers, campgrounds, a marina and even a college. I had always assumed that the Massachusetts Maritime Academy was a restricted area, but that isn’t the case. A customer, who works there, told me it’s a good place to find ducks and I should check it out, so I did. Located in the semi-town of Buzzards Bay (gotta love that name), the Academy sits on the south end of the Canal. What a picturesque place for a school. (My first college overlooked Worcester and the view wasn’t nearly as beautiful as you might think.) Parking is extremely limited on the property, so I only took a quick drive through. But even on my short visit I saw lots of ducks, most of which were Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Eiders. These are both fine birds, but I was on a mission to find loons, so I headed off.

My next stop was at the “herring run” parking area, which is on the mainland side of the Canal. This can be a great place for birds, but on this day things were fairly quiet. I did see something odd, however. Did you ever notice that scenic parking lots are frequently filled with cars and the cars often have one, and only one, person sitting in them? Just sitting. Why do people do that? I couldn’t tell if they were sleeping, meditating, waiting for a romantic rendezvous or were the latest batch of Russian spies. Whatever it was I didn’t want to get evolved, so I moved on.

I crossed back over the bridge and headed for the Sandwich end of the Canal. This was a good idea. The Sandwich Marina, which is right on the Canal, is beautiful, but it’s also next to the Canal power plant, so try not to look at that. There were a handful of buffleheads swimming around the tied-up boats, but most of the action was in the Canal itself. There was a flock of “Brant” (small Canada Goose wannabes), and at least a dozen fine-looking Surf Scoters. But the biggest show belonged to the eiders. Hundreds of them lined both sides of the Canal and they were all making a distinctive murmuring sound, which reminds me of old men playing bridge. And yes, there were loons, lots and lots of loons. How many? That’s a good question.

Common Loons are diving birds, so counting them is tricky. Every time I counted one bird, it would quickly disappear below the surface, only to have another one pop up a short distance away and then that one too would dive. It was like a giant game of Whac-A-Mole, only without the whacking…or the mole. I finally decided there were between fifteen and twenty-five loons at the Sandwich end of the Canal, give or take a few thousand. But the highlight of the day was near the marina parking lot, which is just south of where that sketchy fish market used to be. Typically, loons are loners, so I was a bit surprised to see an asylum (yes, that’s a real term) of nine loons congregating at the marina’s entrance. What a sight! Why were they all together like that? Good question. I asked them but they weren’t talking. Maybe I should have asked the eiders because they wouldn’t shut up.

One of the best features of canal birding is that the birds are fairly close and not just specks out on the ocean. The moving current can be tricky for photographers, however. It’s like trying to photograph birds on a passing train. Then there’s the Whac-A-Mole factor. Ducks have the knack of diving the instant you try to snap their photo…just to bug us. Finally, keep in mind that spring is molting season. A few loons were in breeding plumage, but most weren’t. As a result, they were constantly preening and doing a lot of scratching, looking like me after I spent a weekend camping in Maine.

The loons will likely be in the Canal for the next month or so, Linda. Your friend and you should totally plan a visit (if you can somehow get around the stupid bridge traffic). Just don’t bother to plan for the weather. No matter what you think it’s going to be, it won’t be that.