Beach Day? For some….

Please consider the images to be copyrighted and ask permission before using them. Thanks. DEClapp Thanks to GoogleEarth for its wonderful access and to for posting the town map.

On a summer Saturday with a weather forecast for hot, sunny, and humid we avoid the glorious quartz sand beaches of Cape Cod at all costs. Many people, and most vacationers, look forward to these summer days with sand in their shoes and sandwiches. But the heat and chewing crunchy sandwiches aren’t any fun for us so we get to the beach about 6AM and try to be off the beach a couple hours later. That is what we did today; a quick visit to West Dennis Beach in Dennis (no surprise there) Massachusetts. Dennis is in the “mid-Cape” with Yarmouth to the west and the stacked towns of Brewster and Harwich to the east. The northern edge of Dennis is Cape Cod Bay and the south side is on Nantucket Sound. This arrangement makes it a great beaching spot for families as the waters are rather calm and not windswept with rugged waves like the Atlantic facing beaches of Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham can present. In Dennis there are three east/west roads that cross town in three stripes – they are Route 6A on the north, Route 6 in the middle, and Route 28 on the southern side. On the Massachusetts Bay side of Dennis (the northern edge) there is another great expanse of open space called Crow’s Pasture. It has miles of trails, sandy beach, and oyster farming along the shore. On the western edge of the north side of Dennis is another beach and parking area at Corporation Beach – a great birding spot during and after winter storms when northeasters blow hapless birds into Cape Cod Bay.

Cape Cod is a glacial remnant that heads east from the Massachusetts mainland before turning north and terminating in the sandy curl of Provincetown. It is about 70 miles (112.5 kilometers) from the canal to Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown. About half the distance is from the canal to the rotary where Route 6 turns northward in Orleans. There is about 500 miles of coastline on the Cape and it often surprises visitors (and many residents) that there is no official town of Hyannis. Hyannis exists as part of the Town of Barnstable. The Town of Dennis is near the middle of the mid-Cape and has a western boundary with Yarmouth on the Bass River which reaches well north of Route 6, nearly dividing the Cape in half.
Here is a similar view from GoogleEarth that shows the geographic mid-Cape. Notice that there are dozens and dozens of ponds in this part of the Cape. The fine silts that settled out of glacial pools and outwash over the last 10-15,000 years have created non-porous sediment layers in the outwash plain and the bottom of the old kettles. This allows fora surprising number of ponds in an area that is mostly cobble, gravel, and sand. Martha’s Vineyard is in Nantucket Sound just south of Falmouth. Nantucket is further offshore and is located pretty much south of Harwich.
Let’s get back to our morning visit to West Dennis Beach. The long sandy spit above is the beach. It ends to the west in a breakwater at the Bass River mouth and a small sandy spit curling to the north a bit. The beach is well used by windsurfers, sunbathers, walkers, and birds. There is a rather large colony of Least Terns (LETE) and the now-ubiquitous shorebird called Willet (WILL). There are also a few pairs of the the little Piping Plover (PIPL). In most cases people respect the simple ‘stick and string” markings that delineate the area where the birds are nesting. Dogs are not allowed during nesting season and so (generally) the plover and terns do pretty well. West Dennis Beach has a great deal of dune and grass habitat which is good for the Willet and for Horned Lark (HOLA). It also allows for loafing and nesting areas for more common birds like Song Sparrow (SOSP), Common Grackle (COGR), and Red-winged Blackbird (RWBL)
Common birds are seen every day by visitors – but how many actually know what they are? These birds are four Laughing Gulls (LAGU) and one Double-crested Cormorant (DCCO). The gulls are a species more common to our south but one that has become well established along our coast line. In adult breeding plumage they have a black hood on the head and then lose it in late summer, keeping only a single dark spot on the side of a now-dusky head. The Double-crested Cormorant is our summer cormorant – in winter we get one from the north called Great Cormorant. The DCCO nests on jetty and rock piles and can be seen swimming in most wet habitats – especially in fresh water when the herring are running. They can also be seen sitting around with their wings partially open as they dry out and warm up after being in the water. They are not as waterproof as you’d think, thus drying is important.
The Horned lark is a little bird of dry areas and we find them in small numbers in many of our dune habitats. Again this is a population that departs in the fall – but fear not, if you want to see a winter Horned Lark you can – but it will be one that has migrated here from the west. The back edge of the black feathers above the eye can be erected into little “horns” – hence the name.
I have mentioned Willet in several recent blogs. They are our most common dune/salt marsh nester at this point. We have only a few sandpipers and ducks that nest in Massachusetts and just a couple decades ago the Willet was not on that list. Its population is growing and its nesting geography is expanding. Pretty nice. On West Dennis Beach they are noisy and pretty much always in sight. We entered “23” as the number sighted during our one hour walk on our eBird filing.
The highlight of our morning was the sighting of these four Black Skimmers. (The feathered blobby thing above them is the rear end of a Canada Goose (CAGO)). The skimmers have an orange and black bill in which the lower mandible is significantly longer than the upper. They fly low over the water with that longer mandible tracing a line in the water and snapping shut with the upper mandible when a fish is contacted. They fly buoyantly, gracefully, and quite fast; the whole concept seems impossible when you see it in action. Do they hit seaweed or sticks? Do they ever hit rocks or shells or the bottom? Can they feed on windy days when the water is choppy? This is a successful strategy as skimmers of one sort or another are found in Africa, South America, North America, and the Indian subcontinent. Black Skimmers are not common in Massachusetts waters and when here they will nest in Nantucket Sound on a “new” island called Minimoy and occasionally out at the end of Plymouth Beach. There are rarely more than a couple pairs around the Commonwealth and the pairs we see are not very successful as breeders. It was a treat to see these birds today.

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