Long-tailed Duck. All photographs by Ryan Schain.
Chatham, Massachusetts, is one of the paramount birding locations in Massachusetts. Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge (North and South Monomoy and Morris islands), South Beach, Pleasant Bay, incredible thickets, and an amazing system of creeks and estuaries are situated within the town limits. Though this article will focus solely on Morris Island, the other locations are all quite fun and can be rewarding.
Morris Island and its surrounding habitat are underrated and underbirded, and the number of mega-rarities that slip through undetected is surely astronomical. Given its geography and potential as a migrant trap, Morris Island is a location where nearly anything is possible. Morris Island is fun in every season. It is one of the few places in the state where 60-plus species counts are possible twelve months of the year, with triple-digit totals possible in spring and fall. In recent years we’ve seen Townsend’s Solitaire, Loggerhead Shrike, White Ibis, Mississippi Kites, Western Kingbirds, American White and Brown pelicans, and Sandhill Cranes. Locally rare birds such as Hudsonian and Marbled godwits, Black Skimmers, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Dickcissels can be found with some regularity. It should be noted, however, that Morris Island is hit or miss. Given its geography, the island and surrounding area is a productive migrant trap. On some days, birds are everywhere. On other days, birds can be quite scarce. I hope this article will convince you to bird the area more often and help you find good birds once you get there.
Morris Island is located south of the Chatham Lighthouse in East Chatham. Follow Main Street until it turns into Morris Island Road. When you come to a fork in the road, make a right turn to stay on Morris Island Road. This will take you past Tom’s Neck and across the Morris Island Causeway, both of which I will touch on later. Continue straight on Morris Island Road (which becomes Tisquantum Road after you cross the causeway) and drive up a hill. At the top of the hill you will see the entrance to Monomoy NWR on the left, Wiki’s Way. Drive through the open, brown metal gate and park in any of the parking spots. Occasionally the Monomoy Island ferry captain will approach your vehicle as you are parking and inquire as to your business on the refuge. In the busy vacation season—late June through late August—this company tries to monopolize the parking lot for its ferry customers, sometimes telling visitors the parking lot is for ferry passengers only. This is not even remotely true. Ignore him and park anyway.
Causeway and Tom’s Neck
Now that you have parked, do not rush down to the water. The thickets, trees, and edges of the parking lot often hold excellent birds. Check every inch of the parking area, including the small medians between parking spaces. The pines along the visitors center often hold a nice mixed flock in the fall. In September, for example, Philadelphia Vireos and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers are often quite easy here. On a late September afternoon in 2010, for example, a brief pishing session in the parking lot rewarded me with a Lark Sparrow and a White-eyed Vireo in the same binocular field.
Once you have tapped out the parking lot, you have two possible routes down to the beach. The first route is a short, rocky trail near the entrance gate. This trail ends on a small platform with stairs, which overlooks the beach and marsh to the north. Ospreys breed in this marsh, and the platform is a nice spot to observe them. The marsh itself is great to explore; in the past, it has produced Clapper Rails and Saltmarsh, Nelson’s, and Seaside sparrows. In winter, this marsh is one of the better places in Chatham to find Eastern Meadowlarks and Ipswich Savannah Sparrows. In the spring and summer, the marsh is a great spot for wading birds; check it carefully for Little Blue Herons and Tricolored Herons. The marsh is also one of the better places in Chatham for large flocks of Canada Geese, which should be checked carefully for Cackling and others during migration. Finally, Savannah Sparrows and sometimes Prairie Warblers breed in the dunes and bushes on the edges of the marsh; both often sing in great light just off the observation platform. Sea watching from the platform can be rewarding, as you can see across the spit to the ocean. Gannets, jaegers, Razorbills, and several species of shearwaters are possible here in appropriate seasons.
The second route down to the water is past the restrooms and the refuge volunteer dorms. It follows a boardwalk past a set of birdfeeders. If the feeders have seed in them, this is a great spot during migration to see birds such as Lincoln Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Indigo Buntings, Eastern Towhees, and rarely, Clay-colored and Vesper sparrows. Past the feeders, the boardwalk continues, with offshoots to two overlook areas. On clear days you can see over Chatham Harbor to South Beach from these overlooks. Scanning the beach and water in the cove can be rewarding, with numerous sea ducks possible in all seasons, as well as shorebirds on South Beach. This southern cove of Chatham Harbor often holds the largest concentration of summering sea ducks in the state, including all three scoter species, Common Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks, and a handful of Red-breasted Mergansers.
Once past the overlooks, you will reach a long staircase. Walk down this staircase—leave your shoes halfway down if you would like them back after the tide comes in—to the beach. Birding any farther than the stairs is difficult during mid-to-late incoming or high tides because the beach is usually totally submerged. If the tide is low enough and you have reached the beach, start walking southwest, or to the right if you are facing the water. The walk is pleasant and safe when you have checked the Chatham Stage Harbor tide chart in advance and figured out how many hours you will have before high water eliminates the beach and the return route. At a mid- outgoing tide, you will probably have around four hours; at low tide you will have a couple of hours; when the tide starts to rise, be aware of how quickly it comes in. Plan accordingly!
As you continue down the beach, watch for Least and Spotted sandpipers just off the stairs during migration. In a quarter mile or less, you will come to an unmarked opening in the dunes on your right; continue past this private property and you will reach a refuge trail sign with an arrow pointing right. Taking this trail brings you into what I refer to as the maritime forest. The maritime forest trail loops through a stand of pines and thickets with breeding Pine Warblers and Eastern Towhees. The forest can hold quite a few migrants during migration, and both crossbill species turn up during incursion years. During spring and fall migration, pay careful attention to the few groves of deciduous trees mixed into the pine grove, as these usually hold the largest flocks of mixed species.
Follow the signs to stay on the refuge, and you will reach the salt pond. This is your best shot for dabbling ducks on the island. I’ve had Blue- and Green-winged teals, Northern Pintail, and others here. When it is not dry, the pond often has both yellowlegs species and other shorebirds. Green Herons and Killdeer often wander around the pond’s edges, and Tree Swallows nest in the surrounding boxes.
Once you have walked around the pond, walk along the trail back out to the beach and head southwest. The beach will come to a corner, around which you should continue. This corner is one of the better spots to witness morning flight on the island, as reorienting migrants often rocket off North Monomoy back to the mainland. In fall, you can get Dickcissels here if you know their flatulent flight call. At the lower tides, the spartina grasses along this stretch hold breeding Saltmarsh Sparrows in the spring and summer. This area is also good to check for Seaside Sparrows in spring and fall migration, and Nelson’s Sparrows in fall. Once you have checked the spartina, look across the water. This is the best location on Morris Island to scan North Monomoy Island. Starting in late June, Hudsonian and sometimes Marbled godwits are usually easy pickups here. Large flocks of peeps are also present, though difficult to identify unless it is an exceptionally clear day. While scanning North Monomoy, keep an eye out for herons. The island has a large colony of wading birds; you may pick out a Glossy Ibis or, if you are lucky, a Yellow-crowned Night Heron.
After you have scanned North Monomoy, continue down the beach. At lower tides, you will come to Morris Island’s best mudflats. Though shorebird numbers will not compare to South Beach or North Monomoy, there are often decent flocks here. Both godwits, Whimbrels, American Oystercatchers, and large flocks of peeps are possible here. Given that you will be so close to the birds, make sure to check every peep for rarities like Red-necked Stint and Curlew Sandpiper! Continue down the beach, and you will walk past large dunes on your right. These dunes often have breeding Horned Larks and occasionally a Bank Swallow colony. If you decide to walk to the end of the beach—approximately two miles—you will reach the mouth of Stage Harbor. The harbor mouth can be a great spot for Common, Roseate, Forster’s and sometimes Arctic terns, and the harbor itself can hold a Barrow’s Goldeneye or two, as well as a large flock of Canada Geese.
You have two options when walking back to your vehicle. One is to go back in the direction you came. Often the birds on the way back, especially flocks of shorebirds, are completely different from the flocks you saw on the walk out. The second option is to walk back along Stage Harbor. There are often small flocks of peeps here, and this habitat is your best bet for species like Buff-breasted and Pectoral sandpipers. After about a half mile or less of walking, there is a cut-through trail back to the beach, where you can continue to the main stairs.
Outside of the refuge parking area, the neighborhoods on the island can be exceptionally birdy and include some of the best habitat on the island. That being said, the streets in these neighborhoods are private ways, not public ones. You should bird along these streets only with permission of the residents.
Morris Island Causeway
Just down the hill from Morris Island is the causeway. This area offers what may possibly be your best shot at a mega-rare bird in the area. The causeway’s scrubby habitat has attracted many rare birds, including Western Kingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, and once a Eurasian (!) Kestrel. Parking is legal along the entire length of the causeway. Though there are no restricted areas for walking, the habitat is sensitive and should not be trampled. There are several open areas near the hill up to Morris Island where you can access the habitat just off the causeway. Walk out through these openings toward the ocean (not the cove), and walk along the edge of the pines and bushes. The Morris Island causeway is best in the fall, especially in mid- to late- October, when massive flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, descend on the cedars along the road. Often other species are mixed into the smorgasbord, so check these flocks carefully. During birdy fall days on the causeway, Orange-crowned Warblers are likely, sometimes with several present. The surrounding thickets and berry bushes often hold hidden gems, including White-eyed Vireos and Yellow-breasted Chats. Virtually any Massachusetts passerine is possible here during fall migration.
Once you pass the trees and bushes, both sides of the Morris Island causeway include salt marsh habitat. Clapper Rails have been documented here in past years, though they are not annual. Little Blue and Tricolored herons have been seen here, so check any large mixed flocks of Snowy and Great egrets. American Oystercatchers and Willets are often present on the west side of the causeway, often with a nice assortment of dabbling and sea ducks.
After you have birded Morris Island and the causeway, continue down Morris Island Road away from the island. You will round a corner and, in a quarter mile or less, come to Tom’s Neck. Tom’s Neck is a large plot of conservation land that stretches between Morris Island Road and Bridge Street. There is one loop trail in Tom’s Neck, and parking is legal on the road. Look for the Chatham Conservation Lands sign, and walk right in from there. During wet weeks and high tides, Tom’s Neck can be flooded and inaccessible. If you walk the trail, high boots are often necessary due to water and mud.
Before entering Tom’s Neck, bird the massive thickets on the road in front of the trail. As with the causeway, this area is best during fall migration. These thickets often hold decent numbers of birds, including specialty migrants like Philadelphia Vireos and Yellow-breasted Chats. During spring and summer, Willow Flycatchers and Northern Bobwhites breed in Tom’s Neck, and from the road you can usually hear them singing. The trail has several small groves of trees and excellent thickets. The height of the thickets makes it difficult to see birds; however, the caliber of the habitat makes this walk worthwhile.
Winter: December to February
Winter in the Morris Island area can be exciting and rewarding. Half-hardys such as Gray Catbirds, Hermit Thrushes, and Eastern Towhees are present here all winter, with rarer winter species like Yellow-breasted Chats and Brown Thrashers possible. During incursion years by winter finches, the large groves of pine trees in the area can attract good-sized crossbill flocks, and large flocks of redpolls often forage in the dunes. Given the area’s geography, virtually any winter finch is possible as a flyover during big years, and Bohemian Waxwings are more than possible. Check thickets on the island and causeway carefully, as late warblers such as Ovenbirds can sometimes be present well into December.
Sea watching can be quite entertaining, with flocks of Razorbills, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Northern Gannets all probable. Sea ducks, loons, and grebes are all common here, and a concentrated effort can occasionally produce a Dovekie or late Manx Shearwater (into late December).
Spring Migration: March to May
Though in my opinion, spring migration in the Morris Island area is less productive than fall migration, spring on Morris Island can be fun. On decent migration days there is a definite and noticeable morning flight at dawn; however, finding a flight line for the majority of the birds can be difficult, as there really is not a concentrated flight area. Cover the maritime forest trail and dunes thoroughly, and look for large flocks of sea ducks that remain in the cove. Sea watching isn’t as productive as later in the summer and fall, though you may get Parasitic Jaegers in late May. Watch for Black Skimmers in late spring because they breed on Monomoy, and from Morris Island you may occasionally see them feeding.
Breeding Season: June and July
Morris Island holds a typical assortment of Cape Cod’s breeding birds. Aside from the usual suspects, local specialties include Willow Flycatchers, Prairie Warblers (not annual), Killdeer, Piping Plovers, American Oystercatchers, Least Terns, and Green Herons (not annual).
Autumn shorebird migration is just beginning, so carefully check the North Monomoy flats for flocks of shorebirds, which often include a handful of Hudsonian Godwits. You can see seabirds, most likely Sooty Shearwaters, from shore. Great, Cory’s, and Manx shearwaters are also possible here in June and July, though usually outnumbered by Sooties. You can see Parasitic Jaegers in decent numbers on some days, though they are usually more visible from nearby Chatham Light.
Fall Migration: August to November
Fall migration is my favorite season to bird the Morris Island area. On good migration days, the island can be dripping with migrants, with virtually every inch of habitat holding mixed flocks. Nearly all Massachusetts passerine birds are possible here in fall, and the island produces mega-rarities with some regularity. Shorebird migration peaks between late July and late August, with thousands of birds often visible on North Monomoy. September is one of the better months for sea watching, with four shearwaters, jaegers, and Wilson’s Storm Petrels all possible.
The Morris Island area is covered by three eBird hotspots. The URLs for specific hot spot pages are:
Ryan Schain was born and raised in Monmouth County, New Jersey, on the Jersey shore. He began birding around age five or six and spent his adolescent years birding on Sandy Hook in Raritan Bay. In 2005 at age 18, Ryan moved to Boston for college, where he has lived ever since. When he is not birding urban Boston migrant traps, Ryan is birding around his parents’ house in Chatham on Cape Cod. His favorite local patches are the Fenway in Boston and Morris Island in Chatham.