Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

New Target Ship & Rare Birds Can Be Seen On Same Day, Sunday, 04/01/12

Dear Bird Folks,

I was excited when I read that they’re finally going to replace the long-forgotten target ship in Cape Cod Bay. I have fond memories of watching the sunset over that rusting old ship. Now I hear that the event is being delayed because of some bird. It’s not those darn Piping Plovers again, is it?

– Norm, Centerville, MA


No, Norm,

For the first time in history, a problem can’t be directly linked to the lowly Piping Plovers. I know the plovers have been associated with the downfall of the global economy, have caused unrest in the Middle East and have somehow contributed to raising gas prices, but they are not the problem this time. The slight delay in replacing the old target ship has nothing to do with plovers. But, there is a bird involved, a very unusual bird.

For you younger folks out there let me quickly tell you a bit about Cape Cod’s famous target ship. The SS James Longstreet was a Liberty ship used in WW ll. It was kind of a hard luck ship, running aground off, of all places, Sandy Hook, NJ. Instead of repairing the Longstreet, the Navy decided to teach it a lesson and towed the damaged ship into Cape Cod Bay, where they sank it in shallow water off the coast of Eastham, MA. From the mid-‘40s until the early ‘70s the Navy and the Air Force out of Otis AFB used the Longstreet for target practice. On summer evenings folks would line the Bay beaches and watch exploding bombs rain down on the Longstreet. It was like a poor man’s fireworks show. When it wasn’t being blown up, the target ship was a handy navigational aid, as well as a tourist attraction. It was also one of the Cape’s most photographed icons, especially at sunset. Eventually, however, bombs, storms and rust took their toll on the Longstreet. Over the years it has slowly crumbled into the Bay and is now seen no more.

For decades the Navy has wanted to replace the target ship. The trouble was they didn’t want to scrap any of their ships. That all changed last fall when a Philippine merchant ship, the SS Illusion, was attacked by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. The 500-foot freighter was swarmed by five high-speed boats, which hit the ship with several rocket-propelled grenades. The ship’s over-matched crew promptly surrendered and the pirates instantly boarded. However, this pirate boarding had none of the drama that many of the recent attacks have had. The Somali’s left the ship almost as quickly as they had boarded it. Why? The pirates were hoping to commandeer fuel, weapons, drugs, electronics or anything they could use or sell. Unfortunately, for the pirates, the entire ship was filled with nothing but Hello Kitty merchandise. Even pirates know that Hello Kitty stuff is on its way out, and they wanted nothing to do with it.

The heavily damaged SS Illusion was about to be scrapped when it was bought by the US Navy and towed to Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard. There the oil and other toxic materials were removed in preparation for placement in Cape Cod Bay. This is when things took an unexpected twist. Work crews discovered that the ship’s “crow’s nest” actually contained, of all things, a nest. Somehow, through all the craziness, an African Hawk-Eagle had managed to build a nest on the ship. The massive eagle had not only endured the journey to America, but she had also managed to hatch two healthy chicks. How did the birds survive? Traditionally hawk-eagles patrol Africa’s savannas, feeding on wild grouse and guineafowl. But Charlestown has a noticeable lack of such birds. Not a problem. The hawk-eagle quickly learned to eat rats and Herring Gulls, which Charlestown has plenty of.

The discovery of the hawk-eagle has created a problem for the Navy. They had hoped to have their new target ship in place by the end of February, but things have had to be delayed because of the young eaglets. It doesn’t look good for the Navy to be bombing a nest filled with baby eagles. The other problem is that the new target ship can’t be placed in the Bay without first being inspected by the Cape Cod Commission. Now the plan is to tow the damaged pirate ship into Barnstable Harbor where the Commission can give it the once-over and the baby eaglets can be safely removed. That’s great news for bird watchers. Birding freaks from all over the country have been aching to see this rare African Hawk-Eagle, but the Navy Yard is off-limits. However, Barnstable Harbor is open to everyone. The birders are thrilled.

According to the Navy’s website, the SS Illusion will arrive in Barnstable Harbor at 1:30 PM this Sunday, where it will be given the Commission’s stamp of approval. At this time, the eaglets will be taken off the ship by Dr. Cham of the National Organization to Protect Eagles (N.O.P.E.). The birds will be placed in an old Osprey platform at the mouth of the harbor, where their mother will continue feeding them rats and gulls. Later in the day the SS Illusion will be towed into the Bay, sunk, and a new target ship will be born.

One word of caution: While this event is a big deal in the world of birding and an even bigger event for anyone who has missed the target ship, it’s not for kids. The ship is heavily damaged from the pirate attack and is rather depressing to look at. In addition, it stinks and is dripping with gull guts from the sloppy hawk-eagles. You’ve been warned. The event is scheduled to take place at Barnstable Harbor at 1:30 PM, this Sunday, April 1st.