Why do we protect the birds on Dead Neck and Sampson’s Islands?
Because first and foremost, these islands are bird sanctuaries!
And secondly, we are in the unique position of actually owning a barrier island that the birds like to call home. There are fewer and fewer undeveloped beaches upon which these birds can nest. We consider it an honor to be able to help keep these species’ alive. Our main intention for rebuilding Dead Neck was to keep the barrier beach at a high enough level to act as protection from ocean storms. Protecting the birds and providing an enjoyable destination for beach-goers was a true bonus.
But, of course, along with the honor comes the responsibility of maintaining the island at a high standard to afford the protection we require for keeping the birds safe as well as the homes that are situated behind it. And this responsibility is not just something we feel we need to do, it is required by law. These birds are protected by the Endangered Species Act which was enacted in 1973. This act provides penalties for taking, harassing or harming endangered or threatened species and helps to protect their habitat.
As a result of these regulations, we keep a very active presence on the island during the nesting season. When the birds first arrive in the spring, we work very closely with the Massachusetts Audubon Society to erect symbolic fencing around potential nesting sites on both Dead Neck and Sampson’s Islands. Not only do we put up the fencing around actual nesting sites, but we must fence off potential feeding areas that the chicks would use after hatching. Some of the chicks, such as Piping Plover chicks, must feed themselves right after they hatch. So, not only do they have to fight their way out of an egg shell, but then they must make their way down to the shoreline to find something to eat. It’s a tough life for something that looks like a cotton ball on toothpicks.
The terns are another story. While Piping Plovers are very territorial and will chase off any other plovers in their perceived territory, terns like to nest in groups or colonies. As a result, we erect electric fencing around these colonies. The electric fencing acts as a predator barrier to protect the nests and the chicks. If you’ve spent any time over on the island you will have seen the coyote paw prints in the sand. One coyote can wipe out an entire tern colony in one night. While these colonies can be very noisy, the noise does nothing to deter the coyotes from trying to get into the enclosure. And, while plover chicks must feed themselves, tern chicks are fed by the parents, so they can spend more time safely within the colony. The electric fencing is sufficient enough to give the coyotes a good jolt should they try to enter into the colony, but not enough to kill them. But, we wouldn’t advise testing the fencing for yourselves. It can give a really strong zap that stings a lot!
We also have put up several informational signs on the island to try to explain why we have to fence off certain areas. While you may not see any birds in the area, they could still be there. Most plovers will run away from you unless you come close to a chick or a nest. While terns will go on the attack and dive bomb you if you venture too close, a plover will pretend to have a broken wing and will try to lure you away from the chick. Either way, your intrusion causes the bird a lot of undue stress and could endanger the survival of the chicks. If the adult is away from the nest trying to take care of you, the chick or egg can be left unattended under the baking sun and could die from excessive heat. And, if you happen to be in the area that they need to feed, a plover chick could actually starve from lack of food.
So, as a result of these nesting practices, we ask that all of the visitors to the island respect the fencing, both symbolic and electric, and give these birds a bigger chance for survival.
We also ask that visitors refrain from flying kites while on the island. The nesting birds do not realize that these are only kites and perceive them as flying predators such as hawks.
And finally, the biggest problem we encounter on the island is the presence of dogs. While we are all dog lovers, we ask that you please leave your canine friends at home. Your dog could be the most friendly, benign animal on earth, but the birds do not know that. They see them as potential threats to the welfare of the chicks and themselves. They spend so much time trying to protect their nests that the birds suffer a lot of stress as a result. Just the mere presence of a dog can cause an adult to leave a chick or nest behind and it can result in the death of that chick.
What kinds of birds call Dead Neck their home?
We are very lucky to have six different species of birds nest upon Dead Neck Island; Piping Plovers, Least Terns, Common Terns, American Oystercatchers, Spotted Sandpipers and Willets.
Piping Plovers, Charadrius melodus, are about 7” in length with the male and female almost identical in appearance. They are small, stocky, sandy-colored birds resembling sandpipers. The adult has yellowish orange legs, a black band across the forehead from eye-to-eye, and a black ring around the base of the neck. It runs in short starts and stops. When it becomes still, the Piping Plover blends into the pale background of open, sandy beaches making it very difficult to detect. They derive their name from their call which sounds like pipes being blown. Plovers were once very common along the Atlantic coast during much of the 19th century but nearly disappeared due to excessive hunting for the millinery trade. They reached a peak of population during the 1940’s after the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. The current population decline is attributed to increased development and recreational use of beaches since the end of World War II. Piping Plovers are protected under the Federal and Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. They are listed as Threatened which means that without our protection, the population would continue to decline.
Piping Plovers usually arrive here on Cape Cod anywhere from late March to early May. The males arrive first to establish their territories and the females arrive later in the season. They are extremely territorial toward other plovers. We had an incident several summers ago where an adult from one pair of plovers pecked a chick to death. He had wandered into their territory by mistake!
Plovers prefer to nest on broad open expanses of beach where they can see danger coming from all sides. The nest is usually just a small depression in the sand that they decorate with sea shells. It blends in so well with the sand and surrounding area that it can be very difficult to detect.
A female plover will usually lay a nest, or clutch, of 4 eggs and the eggs incubate for an average of 26 days. If the first nest is lost due to predation or the weather, the females will lay another clutch. She sometimes will lay a third clutch if the first two are destroyed. Chicks will feed themselves from the day they hatch. They will sometimes roam great distances to find food. They usually eat small marine worms, w insects, crustaceans, mollusks and other small marine animals. A plover chick will fledge, or learn to fly at about 23 to 28 days. Once a chick has fledged, it is considered a success! And, plovers usually leave the area by late August and head south to winter along the beaches from the Carolinas to Florida and the Bahamas. And despite what you might have heard, Piping Plovers are not eaten as food in South America.
The Common Tern, Sterna hirundo, is a light gray and white, medium sized seabird about 14” in length. It has a black cap and a black tipped, redorange bill during the nesting season and has redorange legs.
These terns arrive here around the beginning of May. They form colonies by mid-May and begin elaborate courtship routines. The colonies can number from just a few birds to 5,000 or more pairs. If you are an intruder into the colony, terns will divebomb you and defecate upon you. They do not mate for life.
Terns prefer to nest in areas that are open enough to provide a clear view but have enough vegetation to provide shelter for the chicks. Females lay a clutch of 2-3 brownish-olive colored eggs that incubate for 23-27 days. Eggs are usually laid between May 4th and August 15th.
Unlike plovers, tern chicks are completely dependent upon the adults for their food. Adults will travel up to 15 miles to favorite fishing sites to search for food. Tern chicks usually fledge, or learn to fly, in about 28 days.
Adults and chicks gather together in ‘staging areas’ usually by mid-August to fly south. In these staging areas, the adults and the chicks build up reserves of body fat to enable them to make the long flight to the wintering grounds. By mid-September, most of the birds have departed to the wintering grounds that stretch from South Carolina south through the Caribbean and to the coast of South America.
Common Terns are protected by the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act and are listed as a species of Special Concern. Special Concern species are native species which have been documented by biological research or inventory to have suffered a decline that could threaten the species. They occur in such small numbers or with such restricted distribution or specialized habitat requirements that they could easily become threatened within Massachusetts if allowed to continue unchecked. Or, they occur in such small numbers or with such restricted distribution or specialized habitat requirements that they could easily become threatened within Massachusetts.
Least Terns, Sterna antillarum, are the smallest of the terns at just 9” in length. They closely resemble the Common Terns. The male and female look very much alike. Least Terns arrive at their nesting sites around the 10th of May and quickly form colonies and begin their mating rituals.
Like the Common Terns, they can form large colonies with birds numbering up to 1,000 or more pairs. They also will form colonies with the Common Terns and Piping Plovers. Nesting groups will join in mutual defense to protect the colony, mobbing and defecating upon the intruders.
Least Terns prefer to nest in areas with little or no vegetation and very close to the high tide line where the adults can view the sea. The preferred nesting sites are pebbly beaches or expansive sandy areas. The nests are shallow scrapes in the sand made by the females and decorated with shells and small pebbles. Nesting occurs mostly from Cape Cod north to Scituate and on the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. They are totally absent inland.
The average size of the clutch is 2-3 eggs with one egg being laid each morning until completion. Incubation lasts 20-23 days with both parents being involved. Adults will fly up off the nest in response to disturbances and leave the chicks very vulnerable to overheating and predation, even if left for only a few minutes. Once the chicks hatch, they are totally dependent upon the adults for food. The adults also remove all traces of the egg shells to prevent having the nest be seen by avian predators.
Least Tern chicks usually fledge at 20-22 days of age. Once they have ‘staged’ with the other terns, they leave by mid-August and head south to winter on the coast from Mexico to South America. They are listed as species of Special concern by Massachusetts.
American Oystercatchers, Haematopus palliates, are large shorebirds weighing approximately 21 ounces and measuring 17-21” in length.. They have a long, orange bill which they use for prying open bivalves (oysters, mussels, clams, etc.). They have yellow eyes and an orange eye ring that contrasts with a black head and dark brown back and wings. The abdomen and portions of the wings and tail are white while the legs are pale pink. The males and females are identical.
Oystercatchers nest in coastal habitats with very little vegetation. They lay their eggs in a shallow depression in the sand on beaches, shell mounds or dredge spoil islands. Oystercatchers are territorial and solitary nesters. By the mid 1800’s, Oystercatchers had all but disappeared from Massachusetts due to excessive hunting. However, with a little protection, by 1984 there were 42 pairs listed in the state. While these birds are found almost exclusively on the islands off the Massachusetts coast – Monomoy, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands, we were very fortunate to have a nesting pair on Dead Neck during the summer of 2008. They currently are not protected by either the State or Federal Endangered Species Act.
Oystercatchers are among the earliest residents to appear on Cape Cod, arriving by mid-March. They soon begin to establish territories, often returning to the same site year after year. They have very elaborate courting rituals and are thought to mate for life.
Clutch size can range from 2-5 eggs although the majority of nests hold just 3 eggs. Incubation lasts about 27 days and both parents take turns. If an intruder wanders anywhere near the nest, the adult will leave the nest and wait anxiously nearby. Once the chicks hatch, the parents lead them to the security of denser vegetation nearby, close to the feeding territory. Young Oystercatchers are totally dependent upon the adults for their food and they usually do not feed themselves for several months.
The chicks usually fledge by 35 days and are very good at concealing themselves in the vegetation. They can be very difficult to find.
By the beginning of August, most of the young have fledged and the birds begin to gather in groups of 10-30 or more birds. By early October, most of the Oystercatchers have left for their wintering grounds along the mid-Atlantic coast.
Willets, Catpotrophorus semipalmatus, are drab brown in color but when in flight they exhibit boldly marked white on their wings. They are large birds averaging 13-16” in length and 7- 12 ounces in weight. They have a long straight bill and long gray legs. The male and the female look alike.
The birds begin to arrive in Massachusetts around May 1st and can be seen foraging in and around salt marshes, tidal flats and sandy beaches for worms, mollusks, fish and plant shoots. Willets are very vocal birds and if you wander too close to a nest, they will definitely let you know.
Willets have a very noisy courtship with the male chasing the female, calling out and fluttering his boldly marked wings while doing a very high-stepping strut. The female chooses the nest site and it is usually a cup shaped and grass lined nest on the ground in a salt marsh or in the open on a sandy beach. The usual clutch size is 4 eggs and they incubate for 22-29 days.
When the eggs hatch, the chicks have short beaks, feed themselves and are camouflaged in a buff colored down. Both parents incubate and help raise the young. The age at which they fledge has never been recorded.
In late summer, large numbers of Willets stage together on the tidal flats prior to their southward migration. They winter on coastal beaches from the southern United States to Brazil.
Willets suffered drastic population decreases due to hunting in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. This hunting resulted in willets being virtually non-existent north of Virginia. However, with full protection, they have rebounded. They only returned to breed in Massachusetts in 1976, and have taken a foothold ever since and currently are not protected by either the State or Federal Endangered Species Act.
Spotted Sandpipers, Actitis macularia, are rather inconspicuous looking during the summer months. The adults have a drab look and lack the black-spotted underbelly. They are quite common throughout the entire state.
The female arrives on Cape Cod first, usually around the end of April or beginning of May. By late May, males have arrived and they have paired up for breeding. The female is slightly larger than the male and is more aggressive in defending territory and courtship. When displaying, a female will land next to a male and strut around like a miniature turkey.
The nest is usually no more than a shallow depression in the dunes lined sparingly with grass. The usual clutch size is 4-5 eggs laid by the end of May and incubation lasts 20-24 days. The female will likely only lay one set of eggs, but she may re-lay if the first attempt fails. The male assumes most of the responsibility of incubating eggs and taking care of the young. Once the eggs hatch, the chicks are up and about in about 30 minutes. They return to the nest in the evening to be brooded (protected by the parent).
Fledging occurs when the chicks are about 17 days old and they leave the family group. Fall migration begins by mid-August and is complete by the end of September. Most of the sandpipers winter in Central America and northern South America.
Spotted Sandpipers are very common and are not protected by either the State or Federal Endangered Species Act.