The Beach Times

Rare Birds You Can Find on the Outer Cape
Posted by Kinlin Grover | Monday, May 6, 2019


Part of any Cape Cod vacation involves getting into nature and exploring the local environment. And with this exploration, you are likely to come into contact with wild animals, particularly birds.

The Cape is the temporary home to migrating birds and the permanent home of others, and depending on the month in which you visit, you might have the opportunity to see all of them.

If you’re staying on the Outer Cape, keep an eye out for the following rare, or once rare, bird species that live in the area, particularly near the beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore.


Wild Turkeys

When Europeans started settling on Cape Cod in the 1620s and 30s, there was a significant wild turkey population. That's the reason why we have turkey at Thanksgiving, as it was an easily accessible source of food for the region's early inhabitants. By 1851, however, the last known native bird had been killed, and the wild turkey remained extinct on the Cape until 1995 when 28 turkeys from upstate New York were released in Wellfleet.

It didn't take very long for the wild turkey population on Cape Cod to rebound, as they are once again common. Estimates suggest there are 25,000 of these birds in Massachusetts, so it's likely that the Cape has thousands of birds living in its forests near the Cape Cod National Seashore. You might even see some wild turkeys in residential neighborhoods during your vacation. While you can’t call wild turkeys rare anymore, they were once extinct on Cape Cod, so they remain noteworthy creatures.


Piping Plover

Cape Cod residents have a love-hate relationship with the piping plover. On the one hand, it’s a rare bird, as this is a near-threatened species with an estimated 680 breeding pairs arriving in Massachusetts every spring, and fewer than 40 pairs coming to the beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore. On the other hand, their arrival means significant restrictions on beach access for locals and visitors. The restrictions are in place to protect these frail birds since they tend to camouflage into the sand and are sometimes crushed.

If there is a piping plover nest on a particular beach, officials often construct a temporary fence around it, and erect signs telling you to keep your distance. These nests are incredibly delicate and losing even a single mating pair would damage their numbers of the Cape. Those who are into spotting rare birds should keep an eye out for piping plover pairs and their young in the summer, as Cape Cod is one of the only places on the Atlantic coast where you'll find them.



Another rare bird that you'll find on the Outer Cape is the osprey. In the 1970s, the Cape's osprey population was decimated because of the use of DDT as a pesticide, as the chemical led to thinner eggshells and, eventually, the bird's young being unable to hatch. In fact, there were only a couple of nesting pairs left on Cape Cod at one point. DDT was banned in 1972, and the species has rebounded to the point where you're likely to see these birds if you're on Cape Cod between March and September.

On the Outer Cape, there is a nest on top of a utility pole at Wellfleet Pier. You can also keep up on the osprey population throughout the Cape by visiting the Cape Cod Osprey Watch website. There is an interactive map there that will point you in the right direction if you want to witness one of these large birds in its natural habitat.


Common Tern

The common tern is another bird that builds nests in the sand of the Cape Cod National Seashore in the spring. This species is listed as threatened in Massachusetts and estimates suggest that as many as 60% of the birds that migrate north for the summer live on the beaches of the Outer Cape.

The good news is that the common tern isn’t as delicate as the piping plover, so you don’t have to worry as much about accidentally stepping on them. It's still a good idea to keep your distance if you see a nest along any of the Seashore's beaches, however, as there are restrictions in place at certain times in their nesting areas.


King Eider

The king eider is a type of sea duck that appears in places like Race Point, and often heads deeper into Cape Cod Bay, with recent sightings occurring in Bourne, Sandwich, and Hyannis. Male king eiders are incredibly striking animals known for their black bodies, multi-colored heads, and bright bills, while the females are brown with a black or gray bill.

For the most part, these ducks live in arctic and subarctic climates, frequenting the waters off Alaska, Greenland, Russia, and northern Canada, although they head down the coast of Canada and the United States in the winter. It is the winter months when they are sometimes spotted off the coast of Cape Cod, so keep your eyes open for these beautiful birds.


There are More

This list is just a small sampling of some birds that you won’t have the chance to see in most parts of the country. The beaches, forests, herring runs, and marshland make Cape Cod a very appealing migrating bird habitat, and officials protect many natural areas to keep it that way.

Watch for these rare bird species on your next Cape Cod vacation because you never know if you’ll have another opportunity to witness them in their natural habitats.

Birding Birds On Cape Cod

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