Barn Owls and Pinkletinks

September 19, 2014

“You can hitch a ride on the freight ferry if you want. It’s faster.”  The lady behind the ticket counter gestures towards a ship with a flat top and an enormous deck. To my disbelief, large trucks roll onto the ferry that miraculously stays afloat. “Sounds good to me,” I reply. A double-crested cormorant zips only a few yards above my head as I hand over my ticket and walk aboard.

            I immediately walk to the front of the boat. I perch against the rail as I sweep the horizon with my binoculars. Gulls, cormorants, and even an osprey fill the golden-blue sky that hangs over the silhouette of Martha’s Vineyard in the distance. I have never been to the Vineyard before. The island is home to the third and final MassAudubon Sanctuary I have yet to visit on Cape Cod. The Felix Neck sanctuary is famous for its pinkletinks- spring peepers. There is a yearly contest to try to be the first to hear these wonderfully nicknamed creatures singing come springtime. 

But also, Felix Neck is home to a new bird for me to meet: Barn Owls, the terrifying nocturnal raptors with haunting screams and alien-like face discs. This is a chance for me to get a glimpse at a bird that is extremely difficult to find otherwise. Susan and I have played the screams of this sole member of the family tytonidae in front of every silo and barn we pass by as we bird our way through Dutchess County, but to no avail. In fact, there has not been a Barn Owl reported in Dutchess County to eBird since 2009. So imagine my delight when I learned that an Owl cam hung above a nest box on the island has kept track of four Owlets that grew up at the sanctuary all through the summer. Barn owls actually live there. Surely I will be able to find one! 

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  The wind is fierce as the ferry surges onward. I can feel spray in my face as I squint against the sunrise, and I feel as though I have fallen into some bygone age of sailors. I stretch out my arms and feel the wind roar around me as it tries to knock me down, but it cannot. All on my own, I made it to Cape Cod and figured out how to get on this ferry. There is no force in the world that can knock me over as I face this day of true freedom!

Snow Geese

Snow Geese

  I can barely contain myself as the ferry finally pulls into the harbor. If the other passengers were to stand close to me, I am sure that I would infect them with excitement. A bus ride later and I find myself standing in front of Felix Neck, binoculars and camera at the ready. I am practically bursting with adrenaline. Ears pricked, I walk the mile trail into the sanctuary. The trail here has a different feel than those in the Hudson Valley. Pine needles cover the ground beneath my feet that is, at times, sand instead of dirt. The plants are coniferous, and the leafy shrubs are low to the ground. To my shock, a flock of eight snow geese suddenly flies overhead. If they had not been honking, I would not have even bothered to look up that high to see them.

There should have been a Barn Owl poking out here...

There should have been a Barn Owl poking out here...

            When I reach the visitor’s center, I can feel my heartbeat increase. Where are the Barn Owls? I look around for a large nest box, but see none. When I ask the attendant inside the center about the location of the Owls, my heart sinks at her response. The nest box is in the attic of the visitor center- and the Owls are fast asleep, totally inaccessible. Unless by some sheer miracle a Barn Owl decides to stick its head out of the hole while I happen to be looking at it, I will not be seeing one today. Still, I came way too far to allow myself to feel deflated for long, and by the time I am a little ways up the trail through a field towards the marshy shoreline there is again a spring in my step.

            Sometimes, I like to think that the Cape Cod air is different from that of air anywhere else. When I inhale deeply, I can feel calm swell within my lungs. There is a sense of eternity here where the waves crash and recede and the dunes ripple and sing. No matter how much time passes, when my feet feel the sand shift beneath my feet I do not feel as though I have left the Cape at all.

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         Before long, I have forgotten about the Barn Owls. I hear Eastern Towhees tell me to “Drink my tea!” as I walk through the woods. Great Egrets and Greater Yellowlegs greet me out in the marsh around Sengekontacket Pond. It is the “neck” that juts out into this pond that gives the preserve half of its name. It gets the other half from Felix Kuttashamaquat, a Wampanoag who lived in the area in the early 1600’s. He and the other Wampanoags that lived here gathered shellfish and finfish from the waters around the island.

I gather my own bounty as I walk along the shoreline picking up scallop shells. I feel wonderfully lost in adventure. As I loop around towards the visitor’s center on a new trail, the trees suddenly disperse to reveal a pond- and a family of Mute Swans. There are three of them- two adults and a juvenile. I sit down on the boardwalk to watch them feed, smiling to myself as they plunge their long necks into the water. They emerge with small water droplets dripping from the tips of their bills. The dusky brown juvenile looks rather drab compared to its magnificent, elegant parents. But in the harsh sunlight, the edges of its feathers gleam in such a way that they foretell the metamorphosis that the juvenile will undergo as it molts into its adult form.

            I finally leave the swans as they swim towards the other side of the pond. I make my way back to the bus, across the island, and back onto the ferry. Even though many twitchers who target birds might consider my Barn Owl-less trip a failure, I could not disagree more. I wave to the island receding into the distance before turning around to face the wind and spray- and the next three days of insane birding at the Cape Cod Bird Festival.