This historic area near the southern end of Cape Cod National Seashore is where to find warblers, shorebirds, ducks, and hawks.
By Shirley L. Ruhe | Published: 6/15/2015
Fort Hill is the southern gateway to Cape Cod National Seashore. Visitors who don’t tour the Penniman House, the home of a 19th-century whaling family, or admire the 20-ton granite boulder on Skiff Hill that the Nauset likely used to sharpen harpoon heads, fishing hooks, and stone axes, can look for birds.
Yellow Warblers and Willow Flycatchers nest in the dense vegetation along the path toward Nauset Marsh, a productive salt marsh just east of Fort Hill. In the open fields near the Penniman House, watch for Marsh Wrens and Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows. In September, large numbers of shorebirds wading in the salt marsh can be seen from overlooks along the trails. High tide is important — the higher the better. On any one day, you can see more than 60 Greater Yellowlegs clustered on a far shore. And as the weather cools, the leaves turn brilliant red and yellow, contrasting with the bright blue water beyond.
Many species of ducks replace the shorebirds when they leave later in fall. Overhead, hawks circle their way down the coast. And at dusk, watch the base of the hill near the marsh for secretive American Bittern and Clapper Rail hiding in the weeds. — Shirley L. Ruhe
Shirley L. Ruhe is a freelance reporter and photographer. She also wrote about Monticello Park, Alexandria, Virginia, Hotspot Near You No. 191, Shark Valley, Everglades National Park, No. 199, Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Preserve, Key West, Florida, No. 205, and Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve, Playa Del Rey, California, No. 212.
At a Glance
Click on the coordinates below to view location:
Open grasslands, kettle hole swamp, forest, and salt marsh.
Easy to moderate trails; some log steps and tree roots to navigate. Boardwalk wheelchair-accessible from Hemenway entrance.
More than 260 species. Greater Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plover, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons (late summer-fall), American Bittern, Clapper and Virginia Rails, Northern Harrier, Cooper’s Hawk, Merlin, Red-breasted and Hooded Mergansers, Bufflehead, Common Eider, Green-winged Teal, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, and other warblers, Willow Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Bobolink, Saltmarsh, Nelson’s, and Seaside Sparrows. Winter: Hermit Thrush, Swamp Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark. Rarities: Mountain Bluebird, Painted Bunting.
When to go
Year-round. Best in fall, when crowds have diminished, shorebirds and hawks are moving through, and ducks are arriving.
Two short trails and a boardwalk. Overlooks on Fort Hill and Skiff Hill allow excellent views of Nauset Marsh. Seasonal restrooms. Salt Pond Visitor Center two miles north of Fort Hill has bookstore, museum, theater, and restrooms.
National seashore. No fees. Two small parking lots open 6 a.m. to midnight. Salt Pond Visitor Center open 9-4:30 daily (9-5 in summer). The Flex regional bus route stops in Eastham and at visitor center.
Take bug spray; deer flies can be fierce in summer. Check for ticks, and avoid poison ivy.
For more info
Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
About five miles north of Fort Hill. More than 900 acres of salt marshes, beaches, and pine woodlands. Great for migrant warblers and shorebirds.
Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge
Eight-mile-long spit extending off the elbow of Cape Cod. Important Bird Area and Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site. Most accessible spot is trail from headquarters on Morris Island.