FLY BOSTON & TRANSFER TO AMESBURY, (MASSACHUSETTS)
Our autumn birding tour to New England begins with a morning flight from London Heathrow to Boston, the state capital of Massachusetts. From there, we’ve an easy, 60-minute drive northeast this afternoon to Amesbury, in Essex County, where we spend our first three nights. Amesbury lies on on the Merrimack River and close to the New Hampshire border. Night Amesbury (MA)
THE NEW ENGLAND COAST AT PLUM ISLAND, CAPE ANN & ROCKPORT
In autumn, the mosaic of rich and varied habitats of coastal New England are in themselves a sight to behold. Open areas of golden saltmarsh are backed by bottle-green pines and maples ‘on the turn’, and the spires of Newburyport and other coastal towns. Sandy beaches and blue Atlantic seas sweep into the distance.
Staying just three miles from the best coastal locations enables us to enjoy short journeys to the key birding sites. Nearby are Plum Island and Salisbury Beach State Reservation, where one can spend a whole day exploring the sheltered bays, intertidal marshes, sandy beaches and patches of woodland. Greeted by large flocks of Double-crested Cormorants, the saltmarsh may be dotted with Great Egrets and Northern Harriers. A quick check of the sea will almost certainly reveal our first flocks of scoter, with the recently ‘split’ White-winged being the most common species here, often joined by puffin-like male Surf Scoter. Great Northern Divers (or Common Loon as they are known on this side of the pond) are relatively common and often still in summer plumage – they can come very close inshore, giving spectacular views. Gannets, too, feed offshore and we may see Great Cormorant or the last of the season’s Caspian Terns.
On the inland side of the coastal promontories, shallow pools provide a chance to see a wealth of wildfowl. Black Duck are most frequent, with Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler and Pintail also regular. An assortment of waders pick and probe amongst the ducks: Greater Yellowlegs may be joined by the daintier Lesser Yellowlegs, and we should see Dunlin, Semipalmated and Grey (here ‘Black-bellied’) Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers and perhaps a long-winged American Golden Plover or dark-rumped (Hudsonian) Whimbrel.
Walking the dunes and grassy areas could well produce Horned Lark, Buff-bellied Pipit, and a nice variety of sparrows - most likely are Song, Savanna and Chipping – and there is a chance of Snow or Lapland Buntings, too. The edges of the marsh are a great place to seek out the mustard-faced Saltmarsh Sparrow, a markedly secretive bird.
We will also check out the patches of mixed woodland with an eye out for warblers. Myrtle, Palm and Blackpoll are regularly present in fall, when we may also find Eastern Phoebe. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker can be found quietly picking about the small trees, and Northern Flickers can be seen sweeping in above the trees. Eastern Towhee and Golden-crowned Kinglet are both possible, whilst at the other end of the size spectrum, Bald Eagles loaf about and Cooper’s Hawk may be mobbed by the American Crows.
On one day we drive a little further, out to Cape Ann and Rockport to the southeast. This rocky promontory has the feel of the Isles of Scilly at times, with small coastal villages and seaweed-strewn rocky shores – but the birds are a little different, though! Amongst the patches of beach and rocks, Common Eiders (dresseri) gather – some still flightless and in moult; Double-crested Cormorants gather to dry their wings, providing a handy comparison with their larger and more familiar cousins, Great Cormorants; and ‘slate-backed’ Laughing Gulls loaf with Ring-billed and American Herring Gulls.
From headlands like Andrews or Halibut Point, all three species of scoter - Black, Surf and White-winged - are again easily seen. The sight of them flying past in close-range flocks is a great experience. If the winds are a little stronger and in the north, we have our first chance here of shearwaters and perhaps an auk or Red-throated Diver. The woodlands at Halibut Point State Park can be productive too if you find a feeding flock, bringing more chances of warblers – perhaps a Tennessee or Black-throated Green, this time – and White-crowned Sparrow. One more thing not to be missed is the opportunity to savour the famous local clam chowder in a restaurant in picturesque Rockport!
Autumn here can produce flocks of geese in local fields. Most will be Canada Geese, amongst which we may find the smaller ‘Lesser’ Canada, and if we are lucky a Cackling Goose or two. There is also the chance of scarcer species and we will look for Greater White-fronted and Pink-footed Geese, American Bittern, Clay-coloured Sparrow, Pine Siskin and White-winged Crossbill. Two further nights Amesbury (MA)
CONCORD & WHITE MOUNTAIN NATIONAL FOREST (NEW HAMPSHIRE)
We will make a relatively early start from our Amesbury hotel and either visit a local wetland or get on the road, driving northwest towards Concord, the state capital of New Hampshire. As we drive we will begin to notice the roadside trees already hinting at the colours to come…
We have the best part of three days to explore the area around Concord, north to the beautiful White Mountains National Forest, where at least one whole day will be spent enjoying the scenic splendours and vistas across swathes of autumn trees in the mountains.
After driving north to Lincoln at the foot of the White Mountain National Forest, we take the famous Kancamagus Highway east, where we hope that the forest will be at its most vibrant and colourful.
The White Mountain National Forest was established in 1914 and has been expanded to over 800,000 acres in New Hampshire and western Maine. The famous Appalachian Trail passes through its northern forest, on to Mount Washington and into Maine. It is the variety of low-elevation mixed hardwood trees that give the amazing autumn display of rich golds and reds. Every autumn is different and the rich colours alter daily – seeming almost hourly as the light changes throughout the day. It is the sheer variety of colour that is so amazing: from deep burnt reds, through a range of fiery oranges and burnt sienna, to brilliant cadmium yellows – and everything in between. It’s a breath-taking spectacle and we will spend our time here enjoying taking photos, ‘leaf-peeping’ - and checking for birds, of course!
Such is the experience that birds come second, though we will be keeping our eyes open, with a chance of Blue Jay, its plumage complementing the rich colours about it; Red Crossbills ‘chip’ noisly from the spruce trees and sometimes sit out; and the last of the summer’s Turkey Vultures teeter in the skies abovethe trees. Walking one or two of the numerous forest tracks, we will hope for Hermit Thrush and Dark-eyed Junco, while Black-capped Chickadees can be quite common, and we will listen out for Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers.
As the Merrimack River meanders inland and turns north, it seems to act as a funnel for migrants heading south. Along its route are small oxbow lakes and one just north of Concord can be especially busy with birds in the early mornings. Savanna and Song Sparrows pick about on the ground, and Myrtle Warblers can sometimes fall out of the sky, chipping as they go, into the surrounding bushes and cornfields. Joining them in the trees can be Blue-headed Vireo, Chipping Sparrow, Cedar Waxwings, Tufted Titmice and hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds.
Just to the west, the New Hampshire Audubon McLane Centre is a great place to wander through the fields and picturesque forest down to Turtle Pond, taking in the colours as we walk. The mixed woodland hosts various woodpeckers, with Downy, Hairy and Red-bellied being the easiest to find. However, many of the trees are scarred by the old and fresh holes made by the much larger Pileated Woodpecker, so we will keep our eyes and ears open. Mixed feeding flocks roam the forest andare always fun to check through, bringing a procession of species such as Brown Creeper, both Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, titmice, kinglets and warblers, too – sometimes including Blue-headed Vireo or a tardy Northern Parula. Three nights Bow (south Concord), NH
WEST YARMOUTH & CAPE COD (MASSACHUSETTS)
We will leave Concord early this morning on a 3.5-hour drive south, bypassing Boston once more, to spend three days at famous Cape Cod. On the way we will pass through Plymouth, where at Plymouth Rock the Mayflower pilgrims landed in 1620 after their long sea journey from Southampton.
Close to Sandwich, we cross the Cape Cod Channel onto the unique headland of Cape Cod, an almost 90km long ‘hook’ which extends out into the Atlantic. Our pilgrimage here will not be quite as long as the 17th century travellers and we will find somewhere for lunch and to watch birds along the way – perhaps at Sandy Neck on the inner Cape Cod Bay, where thousands of Surf and White-winged Scoter gather, and the shoreline sparkles with Sanderling picking about the beach. Wild Turkeys are frequently found along the side of the road at Cape Cod as we head to West Yarmouth, our base for our three-night stay on the Cape Cod peninsula.
Cape Cod has a number of great birding sites along its length and we’ll endeavour to pick the best of them according to the conditions and migration on the day. The Cape has an unrivalled reputation for seabirds which, at this time of year and in favourable conditions, could involve large movements of shearwaters, Gannets, skuas, terns and seaduck. The best place to watch from is the most northerly point of Cape Cod - Race Point, which lies an hour’s drive from our hotel. Even on calm days, an hour or two spent watching should produce seabirds, but in a good or strong northeasterly wind Cory’s and Great Shearwaters pass close in, joined by Pomarine and Arctic Skuas, Common Terns plus Laughing and Bonaparte’s Gulls, and Kittiwake.
At nearby Provincetown (‘P-Town’ to the locals), we can take some respite, eat lunch and walk about the harbour of this seaside resort, where Eiders can be seen about the wharf. The local dunes may reward us with large gatherings of Tree Swallows, Northern Harrier and Peregrine, and further chances of Horned Lark and Buff-bellied Pipit.
Heading south, walks at other local spots, such as Head of the Meadow and Highland Point, will produce more shorebirds - perhaps we’ll find a late White-rumped Sandpiper - and migrant passerines, including Common Yellowthroat or American Robin. The Massachusetts Audubon Society wildlife reserve at Wellfleet offers a chance to experience a wide range of species. The centre has feeders that attract close Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Blue Jays, plus endearing Chipmunks and American Red Squirrels.
A walk through the mixed woodland here out to the saltmarsh and shore should reward us with the chunky Pine Warbler, Brown Creeper, White-breasted Nuthatch, woodpeckers and a variety of shorebirds - from Greater Yellowlegs to Pale-bellied Brent Geese. Out on the sea, large rafts of Common Eider gather and we might pick out a Red-necked Grebe or two fishing amongst the cormorants and Great Northern Divers.
First Encounter Beach early in the morning is very picturesque and, when the tide is right, gatherings of migrant shorebirds might include Grey and Semipalmated Plovers and Short-billed Dowitcher. A beautiful location is set amongst some very exclusive houses towards the southern tip: Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge on Morris Island. A walk from the centre down to and along the shoreline of this lovely bay, sheltered by offshore barrier islands, is especially relaxing.
In summer, the islands boast colonies of Common and Least Terns as well as the scarce Piping Plover, and we will hope that one or two of the latter might still be lingering on our visit. American Oystercatchers gather about the islands and on our walk out along the sand and back through the oak woods and larger trees in the gardens, we hope to find the last Sharp-shinned Hawks of the season plus a variety migrant warblers. As ever, the yellow-rumped Myrtle Warbler is most numerous, but Black-throated Blue, Palm, Black-and-white, and maybe a Red-eyed Vireo or Ovenbird and Hermit Thrush can be found. Cape Cod has the potential for turning up scarcities, too, and we will keep an ear to the local grapevine just in case! Three nights West Yarmouth, Cape Cod
MORNING AT CAPE COD, RETURN TO BOSTON & FLY OVERNIGHT TO LONDON
We have all morning to bird the Cape, picking our spot according to the local weather, before returning to the hotel to collect our bags and departing for a little more birding and lunch.
We may revisit Sandy Neck before continuing back to Logan International Airport in Boston this afternoon and catching our British Airways evening flight to London.
Morning arrival at London Heathrow