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Nightly Heron Watch Can Be A Spectacle

Dear Bird Folks,

I’ve heard that someplace on the Lower Cape has a nightly heron watch, but I haven’t been able to learn the location. Do you know anything about a heron watch?

– Claire, Chatham, MA


I remember those, Claire,

When I was a kid I had my very own heron watch. It’s how I first learned to tell time. I got it by sending in twelve cornflakes box tops. (I couldn’t eat enough to get the secret decoder ring.) Heron watches weren’t nearly as popular as the Mickey Mouse watches, probably because the bird’s legs were used as the hour and minute hands. (Despite what they tell you, herons don’t have the best looking legs.) But the least appealing part of the watch was the second hand; it was the heron’s long neck. The neck kept spinning around and around, which most likely creeped out many people. (Although I thought it was cool. What does that say about me?) Wait. Are you asking about a place to go to watch herons and not about a timepiece? Oops! Never mind.

One of my favorite heron spots on the Cape is at the end of Hemenway Road in Eastham. Hemenway Road, which I assume was named after Harriet Hemenway, co-founder of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, is just off Rt. 6 and is super easy to find. At the end of the short road is a parking lot and a boat landing that clammers and kayakers use to access Nauset Marsh. Hemenway landing is a scenic location that is worth a stop anytime of day and anytime of year, but if you visit there on a late summer’s evening you will witness the sunset flight of night-herons. It may not sound like much, but if you like nature this is a time-honored spectacle that helps make Cape Cod such a special place.

Just last week, my son, Casey, and I took in this nightly show. We got there about a half an hour before sunset. Arriving early allowed us time to do some birding at the National Seashore’s adjacent Fort Hill property. Two minutes after we started our walk we heard a flock of crows screaming about something. Of course, crows are always screaming about something, but this time it was obvious that they meant business. We changed course and went to investigate what all the excitement was about. We followed the sound of the calls to a trail that was posted “closed,” but we somehow “forgot” to read the sign and continued on. We quickly spotted a tree full of angry crows…and one very annoyed Great Horned Owl. We barely had enough time to focus our binoculars on the owl before it took off, with the crows following close behind. Owls may not like crows, but this big predator clearly wanted to avoid us. In the owl’s mind, anyone who can’t a read a trail-closed sign is not to be trusted.

Continuing on to Fort Hill we saw flocks of Barn Swallows gathering one last meal of insects as the sun began to set. Terns were dipping in the tidal pools, also grabbing their last snack of the day. In the bushes Carolina Wrens were busy singing their hearts out. This time of year most birds have long stopped singing, but these wrens were noisier than ever. Carolina Wrens don’t migrate. A pair must defend their territory year-round and they were not about to let any newbie wrens encroach on their turf. But the most common creatures on Fort Hill this night were not birds, but rabbits. The fields were alive with them. (It was now obvious why the owl was close by.) On the way up the hill we probably saw fifty rabbits, but on the way back down we saw twice as many. I know rabbits can reproduce quickly, but this was impressive. By the time we worked our way back to Hemenway the sun had totally set and the evening show had begin.

Just behind Hemenway’s parking lot there’s a hidden pond. The pond is protected from human disturbance by tangles of briars, thorns, poison ivy, and this year, perhaps a bear or two. The night-herons use the trees around the pond to roost in during the day. Each evening, at dusk, the herons leave the roost and head out to Nauset Marsh for a night of fishing and story telling. Actually, night-herons are fairly quiet birds. In flight they only occasionally give their distinctive bark-like “quwk,” which sounds like an obese dog after large meal.

During the next five minutes a dozen Black-crowned Night-Herons flew over our heads on their way into the marsh. More herons had probably flown out earlier, but we were too busy chasing owls and counting rabbits and may have missed them. I’d bet there were also a few Yellow-crowned Night-Herons mixed in the evening parade, but it had gotten too dark for me to make a positive ID. (I think it’s time for me to start eating more carrots.)

Yes, there is indeed a nightly heron watch, Claire, and it’s in Eastham. The flight of the night-herons, combined with the beauty of Fort Hill and Hemenway landing makes this event well worth attending. It’s way better than sitting at home watching the evening news or Access Hollywood on TV. Just remember to arrive a little before sunset. Better set the alarm on your heron watch so you won’t be late. And if your heron watch doesn’t have an alarm on it, it’s probably time for a new one. If you need any cornflakes box tops, just let me know.