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  • Writer's pictureJohn J King II

Wild Cape Cod Notebook: Winter is Coming

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

Growing up as a summer visitor to the Cape with very occasional visits during other times of the year, I was completely ignorant of the transformation in wildlife that take up residence in the near coastal waters of outer Cape Cod and the Islands once the spring, summer and autumn life have departed.

A mixed flock of Common Eiders and Scoters take to the air as we approach on our last day on the water for the 2023 White shark research season.

This phenomenon is most noticeable when observing seabirds and birds who occupy niches on or near the coastline and feed principally on small forage species at the shoreline like benthic invertebrates (insects, worms, clams and crabs) Or in shallow water (sand eels). Species such as shorebirds including the array of sandpipers, plovers,waders and others are joined in late spring/early summer by a variety terns, storm petrels, shearwaters and a variety of gulls give way in the late fall to sea ducks principally common eiders, scoters (White winged, Surf and Black), Northern gannets, Long-tailed ducks and in the bays and harbors buffleheads among some others. The demur Bonaparte gulls don their winter plumage and are seen near shore where weeks before terns had flourished but have since migrated south.

So imagine my surprise when I returned to the Cape as a year round resident and became aware of the seasonal change over in the avian wildlife here.

Head on view of Common Eiders and a couple of White winged scoters. These birds were among large rafts of their brethern all presumably feeding on shellfish on the bars at Bearse's Shoal. Our prescence stirred them into flight.

Surf scoter pair on top. Note distinctive orange bill and white patch on the back (top in this photo) of the neck. Also pictured White winged scoters and two pairs of Common Eiders. Lighthouse at Monomoy in background.

A Northern gannet setting up to dive for small bait fish. Their numbers are increasing in Cape waters daily. They are the largest of the seabirds we see in winter. Often viewed diving from the high dune lookouts in Wellfleet in the winter time

Several large (mature) Black-backed gulls stand next to a flock of Bonaparte gulls in non breeding plumage. Note the size difference.

Monomoy Point in Autumn colors. Fresh water ponds and the brackish Powderhole tidal pools in view (top center).

Long-tailed ducks in breaking surf

Common loon gracefully flying just offshore of Shark Cove on MNWR

Distant image heavily cropped of (what I believe to be) a Pomarine Jaeger seen in Cape waters a few years back in early November.

The smallest of our sea ducks, Buffleheads (Drakes left and right) seen here in Ryder's Cove a few days ago

Gray seals haulout on Monomoy. The battle saavy veterans of months of dodging white sharks gave this group the gaunt look of veterans of a protracted campaign. They were unfazed by our close approach.

Predominantly white winged scoters and common eiders (mature drakes with white backs) near Monomoy point.

A beutiful Common Eider Drake (white) and two females.

Late fall also brings the return of Brandt geese to the barrier beach areas of the Cape

Aleutian Dream spots one last white shark for the season with the help of spotter pilot Wayne Davis. Captain Josh Higgins and I on board the AD. This was a beautiful 13 foot female white shark in less than 10 feet of water. Josh managed some underwater video determining the shark was tagged and was female. We did not have the equipment on board to identify her. But after processing the video the AWSC ID Squad, scientists Victoria Migneco & Ashleigh Novak might have enough to make a call on identity.

Interesting skin scarring in this image,

You can see the tag nestled tight to the right side of the dorsal fin. Tag has little growth on it indicating it was likely tagged sometime in the past years. Always nice to welcome sharks back to Cape Cod especially after multiple years away.

NOTE: Remember the AWSC White shark logbook which has more than 600 WS documented over the past 13 years of study, is a great resource to learn who (which sharks) in this population have been visiting Cape Cod and when & where they like to "stop in" when in our waters.

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