Massachusetts: Winter Carnival in Cape Cod

This is a short, fast-paced, birding tour, which has been designed to try and see as many species as possible. However, it is a physically easy trip to do.

For details of how Tropical Birding will be operating this tour, here are our guidelines and tour practices: Safety Tour Regulations and Policy.

Will you go anywhere and do anything to see awesome birds? If yes, you’ll probably enjoy winter birding in Massachusetts! It will be cold, but this whirlwind tour offers the opportunity to search for some of the most elusive species in the ABA area without leaving the lower 48 states. King Eider, Snowy Owl, Dovekie, Thick-billed Murre, Northern Shrike, White-winged Crossbill, Common Redpoll, and Lapland Longspur are all possible, and more predictable birds like Common Eider, Harlequin Duck, Great Cormorant, Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Purple Sandpiper, and Snow Bunting will hold our attention as we explore rocky coastlines, tidal bays, and seasonally-deserted beaches. Not all the referenced species are present every winter, but this tour is designed with the flexibility to find the best of what’s around in any given visit. We’ll be birding sunrise to sunset each day, but we won’t let you freeze, the van a steamy refuge as we bounce between birding spots. Massachusetts is a fantastic February destination, so come experience it with us!


The ultimate Winter Bird of North America? Snowy Owl
The ultimate Winter Bird of North America? Snowy Owl (Dorian Anderson)

Day 1: Arrival in Boston; transfer to GloucesterThis is allocated as a travel day, the goal to rendezvous at Boston’s Logan International Airport at around 3pm (exact time to be confirmed with the Tropical Birding Tour office). Once everyone is present, we’ll head an hour north to Gloucester (“Glosstah”, to locals) on Cape Ann. If there’s sufficient daylight, we’ll check the harbor for waterfowl, gulls, and alcids. We’ll have an introductory dinner and hit the hay early to be ready for our first full day tomorrow.

NOTE: If you have a window seat on your flight into Boston, look for Snowy Owls as you land. Logan Airport is a traditional winter haunt!

Razorbill can often be found around Gloucester
Razorbill can often be found around Gloucester (Dorian Anderson)

Day 2: Gloucester, Rockport, Plum Island, Newburyport, and Salisbury. We’ll begin our birding in downtown Gloucester, a historic fishing town featured in the blockbuster movie The Perfect Storm (based on Sebastian Junger’s Book). The busy commercial harbor hosts loads of gulls and waterfowl, and we should find Common Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, and both Glaucous and Iceland Gulls. Razorbill is usually around, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed for Dovekie and Thick-billed Murre too. Peregrine Falcons are resident on the town hall, so we might find them as well.

After departing the harbor, we’ll hit a number of other Gloucester spots (Niles Pond, Eastern Point, the Elks Club) en route to Andrew’s Point in Rockport, Purple Sandpipers and Harlequin Ducks the main targets from that rocky promontory. Scans of the ocean might produce Great Cormorant, scoters, and additional alcids.

Gorgeous Common Eider are among a host of seaducks
Gorgeous Common Eider are among a host of seaducks (Dorian Anderson)

From Rockport, it’ll be north to Newburyport, Plum Island, and Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Exploring the 6-mile wildlife drive, we’ll hope for Snowy Owl, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, and Northern Shrike. The winter dunes are also really beautiful! Next we’ll cross the Merrimack River and bird Salisbury State Park for more gulls and waterfowl. Common Goldeneye is usually around, and we’ll hope for the much rarer Barrow’s among them. If it’s a good finch year, the park’s central pine grove can host Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, Pine Siskin, and Common Redpoll.

If Snowy Owl has been reported on the New Hampshire Coast to the north, we’ll sprint up there after Salisbury, if needed. We’ll end the day scanning the marshes for Short-eared Owl before returning to Gloucester for dinner and a second night.

A huddle of Harlequins
A huddle of Harlequins (Dorian Anderson)

Day 3: Plymouth, Cape Cod Canal, Barnstable, and Harwich to Provincetown via Orleans.
Today will be a busy day with a lot of en route birding! We’ll probably take an additional scan of the Gloucester Harbor before departing, and we might stop in Lynn or Nahant if something like Mew Gull or Little Gull is around. After that we’ll blow through Boston and head towards Duxbury and Plymouth where we’ll check the harbors and beaches for shorebirds, waterfowl, gulls, and Snowy Owl. We can even make a history stop at Plymouth Rock where the Mayflower landed in 1620! An Ivory Gull spent 10 days on the town wharf in 2009, so anything is possible!

After Plymouth, we’ll head south towards the Cape Cod Canal where we’ll swing through Scussett Beach and check for Lapland Longspur and Snow Bunting. The adjacent canal hosts waterfowl and has been a traditional location for wintering King Eider during the last decade.

Continuing onto Cape Cod, stops at Barnstable Harbor, Long Pasture (Barnstable), Bell’s Neck (Harwich), and Town Cove (Orleans), might yield American Black Duck, both Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Common Merganser, Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Red-bellied Woodpecker. Birding here and there, we’ll slowly wind our way towards Provincetown for the night.

A Northern Gannet passes by Race Point
A Northern Gannet passes by Race Point (Dorian Anderson)

Day 4: Provincetown, Wellfleet, and Eastham. We will have done a lot of travelling the first three days, so Day 4 will be mellower, the featured event an extended morning seawatch from Race Point, right at the northern end of Cape Cod. The beach is one of the premier seawatching destinations in North America, and it’s easy to forget about the rest of the world in such an isolated and beautiful place!

Waterfowl should include Common Eider, all three scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, and Red-breasted Merganser. Horned and Red-necked Grebes are likely to be bobbing around, and we’ll likely tick Dunlin, Sanderling, and Black-bellied Plover running along the beach. Alcids should star, and we have decent chances at Razorbill, Common and Thick-billed Murres, Black Guillemot, and Dovekie. Among more common gulls — Herring, Iceland, Glaucous, and Great Black-backed — the highly-pelagic Black-legged Kittiwake would be the most prized. Gannets should grace the skies, and we’ll check the dunes for Horned Lark and Snow Bunting. This will be winter birding at its finest — just us, our scopes, and the open ocean!

We’ll use the afternoon to bounce around a number of other hotspots spread between Provincetown, Wellfleet, and Eastham. If we’ve ticked most of the critical waterbirds, we’ll pad the trip list — and your Massachusetts state list! — with some terrestrial birding in local woodlands. While this isn’t a dedicated photo tour, the Provincetown wharf can offer some great opportunities. We’ll cover much less ground today than the previous two (and the last), so we’ll have plenty of time to go slow in this wonderful place.

This a great tour for plugging some gaps on your gull list (Iceland Gull)
This a great tour for plugging some gaps on your gull list (Iceland Gull) (Dorian Anderson)

Day 5: Return to Boston for DEPARTURES. This last day will be used to mop up whatever species we might have missed to this point. We’ll probably have another check of Race Point before we start towards Boston, and we’ll hit whatever Cape Cod hot spots we missed on Day 2. If Barnacle Goose, Pink-footed Goose, Black-headed Gull, or other really notable rarity surfaces in or around Boston, we’ll race back to look for them ahead of our departures. We’ll aim to be a Logan International at 1pm, so participants should book flights leaving after 3pm.

A velvety male White-winged Scoter
A velvety male White-winged Scoter (Dorian Anderson)

Purple Sandpiper is notable specialty on our target list
Purple Sandpiper is notable specialty on our target list (Dorian Anderson)

Scopes will be trained on the winter seas for Dovekies and other alcids
Scopes will be trained on the winter seas for Dovekies and other alcids (Dorian Anderson)

Woodland birds like Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers will feature too
Woodland birds like Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers will feature too (Dorian Anderson)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

Pace: Fast. This is not a physically-demanding tour (see Physical Difficulty section below), but we will be birding from 7am sunrise to 5pm sunset every day. Since we can’t spend 3-4 hours at individual spots because of the cold, the goal will be 45-60 minutes of birding followed by 10-30 minutes in the van through the day. It’s going to be bird-and-move, bird-and-move, bird and-move! The Race Point Seawatch will be a bit longer, but we’ll adjust that depending on weather. The goal of this trip is to really bird the heck out of the entire Massachusetts Coast. That’s how we’re gonna grind out the specialty species we all want to see!

Physical Difficulty:(Very) Easy! While we will take a few short walks through thickets and woodlands, most of our birding will feature beaches, bays, and ocean. That mean’s lots of stationary scanning from choice vantages. We will need to walk over some soft sand at Race Point, but that’s the most physical exertion we’ll experience. The cold is really the only obstacle, and it easily overcome with proper attire.

Climate:Temperatures should fluctuate between 20 and 40F (between -6.5 and 4.5C) during February, but it could feel significantly colder once wind is considered. Participants will need multiple layers, and a heavy down coat is recommended. Wool hats and gloves are musts. This tour is an adventure, for sure!

Accommodations: All the hotels we utilize are fully-modernized with hot water and wireless internet. Importantly, and because of COVID-19 concerns, we have tried to select smaller hotels where the rooms are accessed externally. This will minimize time in communal spaces like lobbies and hallways. All lodgings are high-quality with an emphasis on customer service.

Photography: This is a birding tour, but cameras are welcome, and decent photo opportunities could present themselves in Gloucester Harbor and Provincetown Harbor. Snowy Owl could surface anywhere, so participants might want a camera for that. We will NOT be pushing up on whatever owls we find to get perfect photos; we will appreciate them from a respectful distance.

Gear: ***SPECIAL NOTE ON SPOTTING SCOPES***
This tour will rely heavily on scoping/scanning, so participants are encouraged to bring their own scopes. Your leader will have one and put it on all interesting birds for the group to see, but participants with their own scope will be able to scan around while the leader does the same. Binoculars won’t be useful for seawatching, so a scope will help participants stay engaged.

WHEN TO GO:This tour is specifically designed for a winter-time schedule, in order to look for the the many wintering birds available during this time. The state can be visited in other seasons, but a modified itinerary would be recommended.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, there are no special travel requirements. For all foreign citizens, please check the ever-changing restrictions as a result of COVID-19. Tropical Birding cannot be responsible for changes in entrance policy or restriction levied by the US government. Citizens of Canada may enter the US with a valid passport, and do not need to obtain a visa. For citizens of the 38 countries on the visa waiver list (including the UK, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Japan), you can enter the US with a valid passport and a completed Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which can be applied for online. For all passports, the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of all other countries will need to apply for a US visa. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure.Those who need to apply for an ESTA or Visa should do so long in advance of the tour, as these can take days weeks to be issued.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodations from the night of day 1 through the night of day 4; meals from the night of day 1 through to breakfast on day 5; all park fees to sites stated in the itinerary; one airport transfer at the start and end of the tour done as a group (specific times to be confirmed by the Tropical Birding Tours office); Tropical Birding tour leader from the afternoon of day 1 through to lunchtime on day 5; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from days 1 to 5 in a modern rental vehicle with the Tropical Birding tour leader as the driver. Printed bird checklist to keep track of your sightings (this will be distributed on the first night of the tour; electronic ones can be emailed in advance if requested from the Tropical Birding Tours office).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Any extra nights you wish to stay in the area; any flights; optional tips to the tour leader; tips to any baggage handlers if used anywhere; any passport or visa fees; excess baggage fees; snacks; any drinks other than drinkable water; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, internet, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.