WELLFLEET -- In summer, the vast majority of cars barrel right past, carrying tourists bound for an early-bird lobster special, an evening of nostalgia at the Wellfleet Drive-In, or the raucous night life of Provincetown.
Slow down or you'll miss it, on the left, just past the drive-in and the Eastham-Wellfleet town line as you're heading north on Route 6. It's hard to believe the small sign and narrow lane can transport you to a 1,100-acre sanctuary.
Cape Cod's seasonal clam shacks, T-shirt shops, and art galleries are being shuttered now, but the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is definitely still open for business.
"Everyone is always impressed with the wealth of programs we offer in the fall," said Bob Prescott, sanctuary director since 1982. "But that is just on the public side; it's only half of the schedule. We also have lots of groups taking tours this time of year."
Wellfleet Bay is one of 41 sanctuaries operated by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. It was established in 1959 after the then-366-acre property was purchased from the estate of Dr. Oliver L. Austin, who founded the Austin Ornithological Research Station there in 1928. It became one of the most active private bird-banding stations in the world.
The property is three times larger now, thanks to acquisitions, and provides 5 miles of trails that allow one to explore eight distinct habitats. Its birding heritage is going strong, with more than 260 bird species recorded. Fall is an excellent bird-watching season, as hundreds of migrating shorebirds pass through, along with many unscheduled visitors.
"The nor'easters bring all kinds of birds who get blown out here accidentally," Prescott said. "They often end up staying a few days until they find their way back on course. We get a lot of vagrants, like that hawk on Martha's Vineyard." (In what some bird watchers consider the most significant bird ever found on Martha's Vineyard, a small European red-footed falcon caused a huge stir when it turned up in August at the Katama Airfield.)
Though summer is now well in the rearview mirror, fall and winter provide many opportunities to explore nature other than birding.
The upcoming week's schedule is typical: tomorrow evening the sanctuary will host a showcase of aerial photography of Cape marine life by a local fish spotter. Birding programs are slated for Friday and Saturday, and a seal cruise off Chatham's Monomoy Island and a kayak trip on the Bass River are planned for Saturday, along with a seminar on sea turtle strandings.
Next Wednesday will bring the third in a five-part series on "The Top 5 Beaches on the Outer Cape" as chosen by sanctuary staff, featuring an afternoon walk on Coast Guard Beach in Eastham. Sanctuary staffers also run programs at 15 local schools and host an after-school nature club.
The sanctuary and its staff make few concessions to weather. In fact, the more unpredictable the weather, the greater the likelihood of activity and rare occurrences.
"We have found that a lot of our visitors don't mind at all if the weather is a little wild," Prescott said. "Those of us who live here tend to take the Cape for granted a little, but for our visitors, this is a way for them to connect to the coastal environment, and if it has a rough edge to it, that's OK, too."
Along with the birds blown off course, sea turtles often lose their way, most stunned by the cold water. The sanctuary has established a network of more than 100 volunteers who monitor Cape Cod Bay beaches. Last year, 89 sea turtle strandings were recorded.
Beginning next month, when the water temperature of Cape Cod Bay nears 50 degrees, sea turtles, reptiles whose body temperature is determined by the environment around them, become cold-stunned. Their blood circulation and other body processes slow down, they are unable to swim, and they are at the mercy of the wind and currents.
The turtles are recovered and brought to the sanctuary, where they are measured, slowly warmed, and given initial treatment before being transferred to the New England Aquarium.
"We generally don't keep the turtles here more than 24 hours," said Prescott. "We basically do first-step triage, clean them up, and then transport them to Boston."
The sanctuary often seeks help getting the turtles from Wellfleet to Boston around Thanksgiving. "We have found that banana boxes actually work best" for transporting the creatures, Prescott said. "Sometimes when people help by bringing a turtle to the aquarium, they get a behind-the-scenes look at the aquarium. It's ideal for a family."
Along with the deer, foxes, and coyotes who call the sanctuary home, there is a pair of otters who, as Prescott tells it, "seem to have adopted us." The otters "are nocturnal, so they generally get up late in the evening, but one of our members recently spotted one of them at 4 in the afternoon."
Fall visitors will probably see a lot of sea ducks, Prescott said, "eiders and scoters, along with golden plovers and a lot of marsh hawks. One thing people don't expect when they come out here is our fall foliage. The Virginia creeper and the poison ivy both turn a bright red."
The dominant color in a couple of weeks will be orange, when the sanctuary hosts a Haunted Forest Oct. 29, from 6 to 8 p.m. Guided walks through a forest decorated with jack-o'-lanterns and luminaries last about an hour, and the displays along the trail are alternately spooky and silly. Visitors are encouraged to wear costumes, and reservations are required. The cost is $8 for Massachusetts Audubon Society members, $10 for nonmembers, and $8 for children 12 and under.
The sanctuary offers popular field schools during the summer, and the 2005 schedule of four-day and weeklong courses is expected to include nature photography, field ornithology, nature in watercolor, and coastal ecology by kayak.
These programs are generally limited to 10-15 people; summer programs also afford the option, on a limited basis, for housing at a nearby cottage. The 2004 cost was $250 for the week, $125 for the shorter courses. The list of courses offered will be firmed up shortly after the New Year.
"It's important to get in the loop," Prescott noted. "Audubon members always find out first."