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February 8, 2009

A Stroll at South Cape Beach

Filed under: Birding,Photography,Travel — Steve Hamlin @ 8:41 am

Short-eared owl at South Cape Beach, 1/21/09A tale of a January adventure, birding on the beach at Cape Cod.

In the weeks leading up to our recent Cape Cod retreat, I watched the Cape Cod Bird Club’s bird sightings forum, in order to plan more productive birding outings while we were there. Due in part to availability, partly to the fact that we had stayed there previously and enjoyed it, and partly to its central location, we had booked our week’s stay at a resort next to Nickerson State Park in Brewster.

Monitoring the bird sightings forum, I began to wish we had chosen Mashpee for our base, since, while there was certainly quite a lot of activity on the Outer Cape, the most interesting and steadiest reports were coming from South Cape Beach, Falmouth and Woods Hole. There were reports for a week or better of a very rare Pink-footed Goose in Falmouth, but the sightings that caught my attention were of both a snowy and a short-eared owl at South Cape in Mashpee, just down the road from another place we’ve stayed and enjoyed, in the past.

But we had chosen Brewster. We ended up being very happy with our choice – the accommodations were very comfortable, and we were in a location that had good habitat just outside our door, so we were able to bird from the comfort of our dining room table/writing desk. The central location worked out okay, too. We made the drive to Mashpee three times during the week, going in the other direction the same number of times – first to Orleans, then to Nauset, and finally to Provincetown.

The first of our Mashpee forays was on Saturday, our first full day at the Cape. The day was sunny, but cold, but, by the time we collected ourselves and arrived at the beach, a front was rolling in. We had about fifteen minutes of sunshine before the clouds moved over us. In spite of the disappointing light and the cold, I trudged out to the mouth of the Waquoit Bay, stopping where beach becomes jetty.

I saw several raptors among the gulls, swooping low above the wetlands between the parking area and the bay, and another over the stand of pines and junipers near the jetty. I saw none of them well enough to confidently identify them, but their flight reminded me of harriers or marsh hawks.

With the help of a birder I met as I walked back towards the parking area, I was successful at seeing the short-eared owl from a distance. I was also rewarded with a fly-over by a handsome northern harrier. I didn’t see any signs of the snowy owl, though.

Our next visit to Mashpee was on Wednesday. Again, the conditions were cold and sunny. This time there was no sign of an impending front. Again, I walked out to the jetty, pausing to photograph a small raft of hooded mergansers on my way. The dunes were devoid of owls or raptors, as far as I could see. I flushed yellow-rumped warblers as I walked along the path, and there was the usual commotion of gulls at the edge of the bay.

Arriving at the stand of trees that had produced the raptor on Saturday, I stopped and scanned for activity. Nothing stirred. Disappointed, I turned and started the long walk back to the van. I was just resigning myself to the possibility that the afternoon would be little more than a cold walk on the beach, when I spotted a raptor-like shape flying from the direction of the wetland toward me.

Short-eared owl at South Cape Beach, 1/21/09As it flew over the dunes along the edge of the bay, I thought I recognized the shape, color and flight of the short-eared owl. It was still quite a distance away from me, when it lighted near the top of a juniper tree. I had carried my heavy 120-300mm f2.8 lens with me, in the hopes that I’d see something that would justify the burden. I had it mounted on my 2X tele-converter, so I had a total focal length of 600mm. I swung the camera up and trained it on the bird, taking a few shots, despite the distance, in case the bird flushed.

Short-eared owl at South Cape Beach, 1/21/09The distance between us was probably 150 yards or so, so the bird was tiny, even with my long lens. Still, I thought I could make out the peculiar flat face of the short-eared owl. The coloring was clearly right.

Employing all the meager skills I’ve accumulated for approaching wildlife without flushing it, I began to work closer. Both the bird and I were on open dunes, with nothing between us but low vegetation. There was no cover for my six-foot frame. I tried my best to look unthreatening, avoiding a direct line in closing the distance between us and watching with my head down.

Short-eared owl at South Cape Beach, 1/21/09I would move in by a dozen or so strides, then stop and, trying to avoid sudden movements, raise my huge camera-lens combination and aim it at the bird and take a few shots. With each stop, I held my breath, expecting the bird to take flight and be gone. Pausing to allow the bird to regain a measure of comfort, I’d cautiously move forward another dozen yards, moving in a lazy zigzag motion as I crossed the open dunes.

Short-eared owl at South Cape Beach, 1/21/09I managed, to my surprise and delight, to repeat the pattern – advance, stop, shoot, rest – eight to ten times, closing to within 25-30 yards. Finally, elated with my success, I took a last series of shots as the owl, now large in my viewfinder, looked warily around, watching me carefully and reassuring itself of a means of escape. It tolerantly sat through the series, then, tired of my attention, took flight out over the bay, circling back to fly over the dunes, in the direction of the wetland and the parking area.

Short-eared owl at South Cape Beach, 1/21/09I tried to focus my camera on the bird in flight, but was unable to. I was a little disappointed at missing that opportunity, but that slight disappointment was far outweighed by the gratefulness I felt for having had the chance to approach so close. As I made my way back to the path, I whispered a ‘thank you’ to the owl, now out of sight. I walked back to join Linda at the van. It was a good afternoon.

All text and images © Steve Hamlin
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