Dead Neck Sampson's Island

Spotted Sandpiper bird
american oyster catcher bird
willet bird flying
Common Tern bird
Piping Plover

Ecology of Dead Neck Sampson's Island

Barnstable Clean Water Coalition

Barnstable Clean Water Coalition (BCWC) monitors wildlife and human activity on Dead Neck Sampson’s Island (DNSI), along with staff from the Coastal Waterbird Program of the Massachusetts Audubon Society (Mass Audubon). These efforts are especially important during the warmer months when the island receives an influx of visitors, where at the same time, locally-threatened Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) and Least Terns (Sternula antillarum) are actively nesting. These shallow nests, called scrapings, are extremely fragile and susceptible to frequent predation by other birds, foxes, and coyotes. The scrapings are typically found along the ocean-side of DNSI and are the reason for its seasonal closure. It is important not to disturb the nests and for visitors to stay away from active nesting sites marked with fencing by Mass Audubon. Additionally, to minimize disturbance to nesting sites and birds, dogs are not allowed on the island.

The 2018 season was disappointing for the Piping Plover and Least Tern populations that nest on DNSI. Between predators like American Crows and extreme high tides, the eight Piping Plover pairs observed on the island had a hard time building scrapings and producing a clutch of eggs. Only one plover chick survived to fully fledge. The Least Terns didn’t yield any nests, due to the high tides washing the scrapings away. We are hoping for a more successful summer next year, especially with the dredge spoils and enhanced nesting environment that will help create a more suitable nesting habitat for these shorebirds.

While out on the island, BCWC staff patrol the shoreline and pick up litter and debris on the beach that is left by people, washed ashore by waves or carried there by wind.  It is crucial to remove this litter as many species of wildlife can mistake certain pieces of trash, especially plastics, as a food source. Over time, plastic will photodegrade (decompose from exposure to light), which means sunlight will gradually break plastic down into tiny and in some cases microscopic pieces. Animals ingest or become entangled in plastic debris resulting in the deaths of many species of wildlife, including seabirds, sea turtles, whales, dolphins and fish.


We may be the Barnstable Clean Water Coalition now, but up until spring 2017 this organization was known as Three Bays Preservation, Inc. with a mission to preserve, maintain and protect the 12,541-acre watershed that encompassed North, West and Cotuit Bays. It may be interesting to remember how we’ve evolved and maintained our relevance through the years.

Back in the mid 1990’s, several of the area residents came together to keep Dead Neck Island, a barrier island, intact, and save the land sitting behind it. Paul Mellon, the original owner of Dead Neck, had passed away, and a long-range plan to protect the integrity of Dead Neck as a barrier island was needed. Several of the area residents banded together and Three Bays Preservation was born.

This group began the long task of obtaining the necessary permits and finding the sand that could rebuild the island. More than $1.5 million was raised and an ambitious project was begun that combined dredging area channels that badly needed it, and using that sand to rebuild the island.

Almost 300,000 cubic yards of sand has been deposited upon the island in the past 13 years. Not only has this sand been useful as a way to build the island back up, it also has been used to create critical habitat for endangered coastal shore birds, such as Least Terns and Piping Plovers. Every winter, the ravages of the weather have wreaked havoc upon the sand on Dead Neck. Over the past few winters, over 50 feet of sand has been lost on the south side of the island and large scarps have formed. Maintaining the integrity of the island has become an ongoing process for Three Bays Preservation. Because of our active role in helping to maintain Dead Neck Island, we were honored to have Dead Neck Island donated to us by Rachel Mellon, Paul Mellon’s widow. It will forever be kept undeveloped and used as a bird sanctuary.

We work closely with the Massachusetts Audubon Society in ensuring the habitat for the birds will remain. Anyone is welcome to visit the island during the summer months, as long as the several rules for the island are followed to insure the safety of the birds and their chicks:


  • Do not disturb any of the vegetation growing on the island. The plants have deep roots that help to stabilize the sand and prevent a lot of erosion.
  • Do not jump off the dunes. This is for the same reason as the first one; to help stabilize the dunes and prevent erosion.
  • Please stay on the marked trails. If any of the trails happen to have the symbolic fencing blocking the path, we ask that you do not use that trail as there may be birds nesting in that area.
  • Pets of any kind are not allowed anywhere on the island. Please leave your dogs at home. If they have to stay on the boat it will only be a frustrating experience for everyone involved, including the dogs.
  • No kite flying is allowed. The kites look like hawks and will cause the parents to leave the nests, exposing the eggs or the chicks to the elements. It only takes a few minutes in the hot sun for a chick or an egg to die from the heat.
  • Please stay out of the nesting areas that will be defined by either symbolic fencing (string attached to posts) or electric fencing. The electric fencing is well marked and gives a nasty jolt if touched. It’s not enough to kill anyone, but it hurts just the same.
  • View the Bird Protection page for more information.
  • Never swim alone. No lifeguards are present and you swim at your own risk. The channels are very heavily traveled by boats and it is sometimes difficult to see swimmers in the channels. Please be very aware.
  • No overnight camping is allowed.
  • Open fires are not permitted. If you use charcoal in your grills, take the charcoal with you and do not bury it in the sand. It can remain hot for a long time after you bury it and unsuspecting children can get burned if they happen to dig it up.

If you pack it in, please pack it out. Take only pictures, leave only footprints.

The History of Dead Neck Island

This history of Dead Neck Island itself is integral to the history of the watershed we protect, as well as nearby Grand Island in Oyster Harbors. Throughout history, the two have been linked together with Dead Neck being an integral part of Oyster Harbors.

In 1658, Oyster Island (the first name for Oyster Harbors), along with Dead Neck, was reserved for the Indians that inhabited the area. Oyster Island was purchased from the Indians in 1737 for 517 English pounds by the Lovell family as a result of a lawsuit that put the Natives heavily in debt. It was then uninhabited for nearly two centuries being used only as salt works and pasture land. At that point in time, Dead Neck Island as we know it today did not exist. It was not an island then but a peninsula or “neck” of land that ran all the way from Dowse’s Beach to the end of Dead Neck with Sampson’s Island being a separate island altogether.

The first people who realized the potential for Oyster Island were Richard and Helen Winfield of Mount Vernon, New York. Over the course of forty years beginning in the late 1800’s until 1921, the Winfield’s acquired title to Oyster Island, now known as Grand Island, 54 acres of Little Island and 77 acres of Dead Neck Island. By 1925, the Winfield’s owned almost all of the property on all the islands except for a few lots that they had sold to eight families. It was then that they all realized that the island needed to be made more accessible, so they received permission from the Town of Barnstable to build a bridge from the mainland to Little Island in 1891. They also built a causeway over the marsh between Little and Grand Islands and constructed the first road on Grand Island. At the same time, Osterville residents were eager to open a channel for boats to travel from West Bay into Nantucket west bay cotuit circa 1900

It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that work began to make that “cut” from West Bay through the eastern end of Dead Neck to Nantucket Sound. Historically, farmers in the area took their cattle over to Oyster Island to graze by walking them across at a shallow point on Dead Neck called the “wading place” located across from Indian Point. At that time, they would have to wait for low tide so that the animals could make it over and back safely. All of the boat builders, most of whose companies still exist today, would have brought their boats down West Bay, along the Seapuit River and out the channel that was located between Dead Neck and Sampson’s Islands. Or they would go the other way around Oyster Island, west through North Bay, down the Cotuit Narrows, through Cotuit Bay and out the same channel that separated the islands.

The channel between the two islands was the main entrance and exit for Cotuit Bay having the deeper water necessary for the larger boats. This channel has long since been silted over and now forms a cove that is named either Cupid’s Cove if you’re a resident of Cotuit or Pirate’s Cove if you’re a resident of Osterville. Some of the locals wanted to make the cut at the end of Eel River, some people wanted the cut where is today, and another group didn’t want to have a cut at all. That group felt it would have a huge impact on the farmers who used the island and would merely create an obstruction in getting to their lands.

In 1901, the 100-foot cut buttressed by stone jetties on both sides was made. In 1902, $5,000 was allotted to the Town to dredge a three-foot channel out to deeper water in the Sound and through West Bay and up to the boatyards. It was then that Dead Neck truly became an island.

We wish to thank Jim Gould of Cotuit who contributed his knowledge of the history of Dead Neck and also to Zenas Crocker and his book “A History of Oyster Harbors to 1994”.


Barnstable Clean Water Coalition