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Birding North Monomoy Island and South Beach

By Jackie Sones

If you are interested in shorebirds and terns, North Monomoy Island and South Beach in Chatham, Massachusetts (the 'elbow' of Cape Cod), are two of the most exciting places you could visit in the Northeast during the late summer and fall.

Tidal Flats & Dunes Habitats. Classic barrier beaches, North Monomoy Island and South Beach are made up primarily of sand beaches and dunes, salt marshes, and tidal flats. These coastal habitats support feeding and resting sites for a variety of birds including sandpipers, plovers, herons, egrets, gulls, and terns.

Birding Highlights. Over 40 species of sandpipers and plovers have been recorded on North Monomoy Island. The list includes such rarities as Rufous-necked and Little Stints, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, Common Ringed Plover, and Eurasian Curlew. While most vagrants appear during the spring or fall seasons, summer is the time to experience the peaks in more common species such as Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Red Knots, Sanderlings, and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Many birders come seeking Hudsonian Godwits; it's possible to observe between 100 and 200 individuals! Marbled Godwits, although uncommon, may also be seen.

Godwits & other shorebirds August Shorebird List. The following is a list of shorebirds that have been observed on North Monomoy Island, with notes concerning their abundance during August.

  • American Oystercatcher - common

Stilts and Avocets
  • American Avocet - very rare

  • Black-bellied Plover - abundant
  • American Golden-Plover - uncommon
  • Wilson's Plover - very rare
  • Semipalmated Plover - common
  • Piping Plover - uncommon
  • Killdeer - uncommon
  • Common Ringed Plover - one record

  • Greater Yellowlegs - common
  • Lesser Yellowlegs - common
  • Solitary Sandpiper - rare
  • Willet - common
  • Spotted Sandpiper - uncommon
  • Upland Sandpiper - rare
  • Eskimo Curlew - historical
  • Whimbrel - uncommon
  • Eurasian Curlew - one record
  • Long-billed Curlew - very rare
  • Black-tailed Godwit - one record
  • Hudsonian Godwit - uncommon
  • Bar-tailed Godwit - very rare
  • Marbled Godwit - rare
  • Ruddy Turnstone - common
  • Red Knot - common
  • Sanderling - common/abundant
  • Semipalmated Sandpiper - common/abundant
  • Western Sandpiper - rare
  • Rufous-necked Stint - one record
  • Little Stint - one record
  • Least Sandpiper - common
  • White-rumped Sandpiper - uncommon
  • Baird's Sandpiper - rare
  • Pectoral Sandpiper - uncommon
  • Purple Sandpiper - rare
  • Dunlin - common/abundant
  • Curlew Sandpiper - rare
  • Stilt Sandpiper - rare
  • Buff-breasted Sandpiper - rare
  • Ruff - rare
  • Short-billed Dowitcher - common
  • Long-billed Dowitcher - rare
  • Common Snipe - rare
  • Wilson's Phalarope - rare
  • Red-necked Phalarope - rare

Other birds of interest. An extensive salt marsh along the western shore of North Monomoy Island provides habitat for Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows and wading birds. Keep an eye out for Snowy and Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Glossy Ibis, and southern strays such as Little Blue Herons and Tricolored Herons. Northern Harriers nest in the dunes on North Monomoy Island and South Beach. Watch for them coursing over the tops of the grasses. In the fall, especially during early October, Peregrine Falcons may be seen chasing flocks of shorebirds across the flats.

How are North Monomoy Island and South Beach different? North Monomoy Island is most often used as a feeding site during low tides, while South Beach is utilized as a roosting site during high tides. On North Monomoy Island you have the chance to compare shorebird feeding styles, to learn about behaviors, and to observe interactions. On South Beach the birds are usually flying in to roost and then standing or sitting very still in tight groups. You can study the subtleties of their plumages and sort through the flocks looking for something different. Perhaps you'll catch the rufous coloration of a Western Sandpiper or a Curlew Sandpiper! South Beach serves as a staging area for Roseate Terns during the late summer. Thousands of birds may be seen sitting on the beach, flying overhead, or hovering above the water's surface. Common Terns, Forster's Terns, and Black Terns may also be found. It's a great opportunity to hear Roseate Terns as they seem to call more than other species at this time of year.

When to go. The best time of year for birding on North Monomoy Island and South Beach is from mid-summer through late fall. Different species peak at different times, but from mid-July through mid-September you can't go wrong! Shorebird abundance is greatest during late July and early August, while diversity is greatest during late August and early September.

Try to time your visit to North Monomoy Island within the three hours before or after high tide. At this time the shorebirds are concentrated instead of being spread out across the flats. If you're going to South Beach, plan to arrive a couple of hours before high tide and to stay until a couple of hours after high tide. This way you'll be able to watch the birds coming in to roost and while they are roosting. Take care not to disturb them, they've got a long way to go after they leave Cape Cod!

Keith Lincoln's RipRyder How to get there. Access to North Monomoy Island is limited to transportation by boat. The most productive birding sites on South Beach are also more easily accessed by boat. The Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (508/349-2615) and the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History (508/896-3867) offer natural history tours to both locations. I highly recommend these tours, especially to first-time visitors. The naturalists leading these tours are aware of recent bird sightings and of the best routes to take when looking for birds.

If you are going out on your own, there is a seasonal ferry service run from the base of Morris Island in Chatham. Stop by the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters building and talk to the Refuge Manager about which areas of the island are currently closed to the public. Then follow the trail and a set of stairs to the beach. At the base of the stairs look for a boat called the Rip Ryder captained by Keith Lincoln (508/945-5450). Outermost Harbor Marine (508/945-2030) in Chatham also offers reliable and consistent shuttle service to the Monomoy Islands and South Beach.

Call ahead for current fees and to make reservations!

What to bring. Binoculars and a spotting scope are extremely helpful as the birds are often seen at a distance. Be prepared for exposure to sun, wind, and salt spray. Dress in layers, and be prepared to get wet up to your knees. You'll probably want to bring along something to drink, a snack, and maybe even a picnic lunch, depending upon the amount of time you're going to spend on the beach.

If you have questions. Call Jackie Sones at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (508/349-2615). You can also hear about recent bird sightings by calling the Cape Cod Natural History Hotline at 508/349-WING (9464).

Jackie Sones is a teacher/naturalist at Massachusetts Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. She has led birding trips to South Beach, North Monomoy and South Monomoy since 1991. She also leads workshops on birds, butterflies, and dragonflies.

Jackie can be reached at

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Last Updated: Thursday, July 27, 2000 9:52pm EST