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Nauset Marsh Cruise Best Way To See This Cape Cod Gem

Dear Bird Folks,

My grandmother is turning eighty next week and for her birthday I’d like to take her on a birding outing to Cape Cod. She’s a fairly serious birder, but has limited walking ability. Do you have any suggestions where I might take her to see some interesting birds that doesn’t require much walking?

– Alex, Staten Island, NY


You’ve come to the right guy, Alex,

When it comes to suggestions on easy birding trips I’m the one you want to talk to. I like birding but I’m also lazy. There’s only so much effort I’m willing to put into seeing a bird. I’ve seen birders stumbling across mudflats in the blazing sun with bugs chewing on their necks, while toting binoculars, tripods, spotting scopes, cameras and enough books to start a bookmobile. These people may be seeing birds but they also look miserable. Forget that. I don’t put that much effort into my job; I’m certainly not going to work that hard when I’m trying to have fun.

My suggestion is to take your grandmother for a cruise on Nauset Marsh. A Nauset Marsh cruise offers the ideal blend of good birding, amazing scenery and sitting. Blessed sitting. Nauset Marsh lies between the Lower Cape towns of Orleans and Eastham and the Atlantic Ocean. The tourist books tell us that Nauset Marsh is one of Cape Cod’s hidden gems. It’s certainly a gem, but at 800 acres it is hardly something that can be called “hidden.” Nauset Marsh is easily viewed from the top parking lot at Coast Guard Beach or from the spectacular parking area at Eastham’s Fort Hill. Viewing this marsh is a treat in itself, but the best way to explore it is to take the aforementioned cruise. When I say “cruise,” I’m not talking about one of those shuffleboard or overeating things. The buffet on this cruise is one filled with beauty, local and natural history, plus plenty of birds.

The reason I know so much about Nauset Marsh is because each August my friend Fahy takes this cruise on her birthday and for some reason she always invites me. So not only do I get to see birds while sitting, it’s also free. (Talk about the perfect combination.) We typically go when the tide is high and in the evening when the birds are settling down for the night. This year we sailed just past a flock of bright-white Great Egrets that were feeding with several Great Blue Herons, a Green Heron and a Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Next we came upon a massive Osprey platform. Over the years the birds have added so many sticks to their nest that it is now about the size of the Pentagon. Just after that a beautiful pair of endangered Roseate Terns flew right off the bow of the boat. I have to admit that I only heard the terns fly over. I was busy eating a cupcake and missed seeing them. But I’m sure they were beautiful.

The sandbars near the outer beach were filled with resting shorebirds. I’m not talking about a handful of shorebirds either, but hundreds and hundreds of them. Lines of relaxing Black-bellied Plovers stood shoulder to shoulder. Sandpipers and Greater yellowlegs remained active, while one of my favorite shorebirds, a Ruddy Turnstone, was vigorously feeding. I really like turnstones because they are considerate enough to have a plumage that is so distinctive that even I can identify them. You gotta love birds like that.

Overhead large flocks of assorted terns gave their piercing calls as they gathered for the night. At this point both the beach and the sky were filled with birds. Birds were literally everywhere we looked. American Bitterns, skimmers, and oystercatchers preened, while misunderstood Piping Plovers quietly fed along the water’s edge. I know the image I’m painting sounds a bit Hallmarky, but a boat trip through Nauset Marsh really is this cool and is nearly always filled with birds. Amazingly, less than a mile away from all of this natural wonder is crazy, congested Rt. 6, where horns are honking and drivers are yelling bad words at each other. This cruise is a much better way to spend your evening.

The best way to see Nauset Marsh is to sign up for one of the trips offered by the Audubon Society in Wellfleet. The trips are two hours long and usually sell out so advanced reservations are important. The trips are open to the public so be prepared to share the boat with other creepy birders. On the upside, Audubon trips always have a highly trained, underpaid naturalist on board to answer any questions. Your other option is to set up a private trip with Captain Dave Bessom. Capt. Dave will take as few as six people out, so no other creepy birders need to be involved. A private trip means you won’t have a trained naturalist aboard, but Capt. Dave always adds plenty of local color (i.e. gossip) and sometimes that’s better than seeing birds.

I’d definitely take your Gram on one of these trips, Alex. All she has to do is sit and relax and Capt. Dave will take her right to the birds. My favorite kind of birding. And if you happen to need an extra person to fill the boat, let me know. I’ll even bring the cupcakes. Contact Mass Audubon: 508-349-2615 or Capt. Dave: 508-255-8262