Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
In This Place

The Stealth Endangered Species of the Cape and Islands

Scott Heron /


You’re probably aware of the Endangered Species Act, that landmark piece of federal environmental legislation signed into law by that hippy environmentalist Richard Nixon back in 1973. It’s helped bring back species like the Bald Eagle, Whooping Crane, and Peregrine Falcon, not to mention that punching bag of the local press corps, the Piping Plover. 


But did you know that Massachusetts had its own Endangered Species Act? Since 1990, hundreds of locally rare plants and animals without federal protection have been covered by the act that we environmental intelligentsia know as MESA. And there are some protected birds that breed here that you might not know– they are the stealth endangered species of the Cape and Islands.


Starting our tour in the woods, we have the tiny, stunning warbler called the Northern Parula a state Threatened species. Arrayed in blues, golds, and reds, the male sings his rising buzzy song from pine-oak forests in a few scattered locations on the Cape, mainly in Harwich, Brewster, and Mashpee. Before parulas hang their hat in a woodland, it needs to have copious amounts of the hanging lichens known as Old Man’s Beard draped over the tree branches, because that’s where they hide their nests. In the south they nest in the iconic Spanish Moss, which is not a moss, or a lichen, but a flowering plant. It’s not Spanish either, so that name was a real swing-and-a-miss, all around. In any case, keep an ear out for these guys this month whenever you see drapey, blue-gray tangles of lichens dangling from tree branches, and consider reporting them to the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program.


Leaving the mature forest and heading out into the open woodlands of the pine barrens, we find the Eastern Whip-poor-will, a species I recently profiled in another bird report. These nocturnal, ground nesting insectivores are listed by the state as a species of Special Concern and face numerous threats, including increased numbers of cats and other predators, fire suppression, and declining populations of woodland moths and other flying insects. Luckily, they remain relatively common in pine-barrensy places like the Cape Cod Nationals Seashore, Camp Edwards, and Miles Standish State Forest.


Moving out of the barrens to where forests grade into shrublands and, finally, open grasslands we have those cryptic little brown jobs, the Vesper Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, and a larger brown job known as the Upland Sandpiper. All were more common on the treeless, post-agricultural landscape of Cape Cod, but have retreated to a few isolated pockets of grassland or disappeared altogether. Vespers prefer a few trees, while Grasshopper Sparrows and Upland Sandpipers like big grasslands. Vespers had been hanging on in the moors and dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore, but those populations appear to have blinked out in recent years. Grasshopper Sparrows are increasingly common at Crane Wildlife Management Area in Falmouth, where efforts to increase the size of the grasslands have benefitted a number of imperiled grassland plants and animals. All three species can be found in certain grassy airports, like the municipal airport in Plymouth.


It seems I’ve run out of words before I’ve run out of birds, so check back in another week or so for some of the locally breeding predatory birds and marsh birds of our lesser known state Endangered Species list.