Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

October 2016

Vol. 44, No. 5

When Change Is the Norm: The Monomoy Barrier Systems and its Constantly Shifting Habitat

Kate E. Iaquinto


Figures 1 & 2. (Left) Map of the original refuge boundary and landform when Monomoy NWR was established in 1944. Figure credit: USFWS 1944, Division of Realty.
(Right) Map of the islands after the Blizzard of 1978. Figure credit: USFWS 1988. Environmental Assessment—Master Plan: Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. Chatham, Massachusetts. 186 pp. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hadley, Massachusetts. [AR, lC, 307-490] U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 5, Newton Corner, Massachusetts.

Chatham, Massachusetts, located on the elbow of Cape Cod, is the quintessential coastal New England town and summer destination for many tourists. More recently, Chatham has been in the news for its increasing gray seal population and the great white sharks that have followed. These are amazing wildlife resources, but what makes Chatham special to birders is the enormous diversity and numbers of avian species that can be seen here.

Chatham is home to an extensive barrier beach system, part of which was established in 1944 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge (refuge or NWR). These islands are immensely important for nesting and migratory shorebirds and seabirds. In 2016 alone, the refuge and adjacent South Beach hosted 67 pairs of Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus), 10,505 pairs of Common Terns (Sterna hirundo), 14 pairs of Roseate Terns (Sterna dougallii), over 700 pairs of Least Terns (Sternula antillarum), 19 pairs of American Oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus), and saw thousands of migrant shorebirds and staging terns. Monomoy NWR is also a diverse nesting area for waterfowl such as American Black Duck (Anas rubripes), wading birds such as Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) and Great Egret (Ardea alba), and landbirds including Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) and Saltmarsh Sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus). The dynamic nature of the Monomoy barrier beach system is what makes it a unique and important place to protect for all of the species that depend on it. 

To me, the feeling of Monomoy is always the same regardless of its physical form or a particular map. It is a beautiful barrier beach that has for many hundreds of years stretched miles off the shore of Chatham. Whether it was a peninsula or a chain of islands, whether it was connected or disconnected, whether it was inhabited or deserted, the place remains the same: a stretch of beautiful beach—largely unaltered by humans—that is essential wildlife habitat, especially for birds.

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