Winter Birding on Cape Cod


Lots of eider ducks swimming in the canal, near the Bourne Bridge

We headed to the Cape during this mostly snow-less winter, and as we drove over the Bourne Bridge we spotted probably a thousand eider ducks swimming in a line on the north side of the canal, almost direclty below us underneat the bridge. Grabbing this chance to get some close up views of these large ducks that mostly live north of us in warm weather, we crossed back over the bridge and hunted for a place with easy access to the Cape Cod bike trail near the bridge.

Small park in Bourne on the site of the previous Bourne Bridge (north side)

It took a little time, but we succeeded in locating a small “pocket park” in Bourne, next to the Bourne Town Hall on Perry Avenue, and discovered a great view of the canal. But we were a long way up from the railtrail. Just west of this park, we spotted a small gravel path, and found that we could access the trail from right next to where we’d parked our car.

View of the old bridge abutment and pocket park at the edge of the abutment, offering great views of the canal and the railroad bridge in the distance

A biting cold day in February, we had brought enough clothes for the weather, and were glad for all of them. As we got onto the railtrail, we found an informational kiosk that explained the significance of where we had just been. We had, unknowingly, walked up onto the bridge abutment for an earlier bridge over the Cape Cod canal. This explained why we were so high up over the canal when we visited what we htought was a simple park. In reality, it was a landmark from a previous time.

Thousands of eiders swimming in the canal near the Bourne Bridge

The closer we got to the bridge, the more birds we encountered. The current in the canal was running from Buzzards Bay east to Massachusetts Bay at a fast clip. The took advantage of the Bourne Bridge abutment as it created a rotating gyre along the edge of the canal. The birds swam slowly up, against the current until they finally were caught up in the eastward flow and circled back to the end of the line back near the bridge.

While not disturbing the birds, we were able to get quite close and enjoy watching their behavior in the canal

As they swam, the eiders burbled a gentle call, creating a soundscape of bird calls along the shoreline. Some male eiders went against the tide, as it were (actually with the tide, but against what all the other eiders were doing,) and swam through the midst of the mass of eiders. I wondered if they were picking out potential mates to romance during the upcoming breeding season. Despite the cold, it was a wonderful sight, and great fun to stand so near to so many of these ducks that in years past had been hunted nearly to extinction. Thanks to protections in place, their populations have rebounded, and they seem to be thriving. As opposed to being seen as valuable only as a source of eider down, these ducks now are able to enjoy their eider down for themselves, and stay warm and cosy, despite the weather. A very few golden eye ducks and mergansers paddled nearby, but kept their distance from the mass of eiders. We left the ducks to their swimming and headed on for further Cape adventures, but when we returned over the bridge later in the day, the tide had turned, and the ducks were on the other side of the bridge, using the more eastward bridge abutment to create the same safe refuge from tides that would otherwise have swept them to one end of the canal or the other. Yes, it was a cold visit, but still fun. And for now, no ice on the path. Happy trails! Marjorie beech cliffs 2018 Marjorie Turner Hollman is a writer who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd editionMore Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd editionEasy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed, and Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. Her memoir, the backstory of Easy Walks, is My Liturgy of Easy Walks: Finding the Sacred in Everyday (and some very strange) Places. She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20+ years, has helped numerous families to save their stories, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress.

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