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Obscure Marsh Birds and Ducks on Monomoy Island

Jonathan Blithe / flickr / bit.ly/2L5cFOm


Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge includes a network of ever-shifting barrier beaches and islands dangling from the elbow of Cape Cod. Once home to a 19th-century fishing community complete with a school and, of course, a tavern, the island is now mostly designated as a federal wilderness area, so most of the eating and drinking is done by the wildlife these days. 


While the huge seabird colonies and nesting shorebirds have justifiably drawn most of the attention of the overworked research staff, the nesting waterfowl and marsh birds have not been surveyed as extensively. But recently, local ornithologist Sean Williams and young birder Maili Waters have taken on the task of documenting these forgotten birds of Monomoy.

Aside from American Black Ducks and Mallards, ducks are hard to come by on Cape Cod once winter gives way to spring. The majority of species that we see during migration continue further north and west to nest in vast, pond-dotted prairies or along northern rivers and lakes. But the remote, grassy ponds of South Monomoy host several species of breeding ducks found, in some cases, nowhere else in Massachusetts, like the painting-worthy Northern Shoveler and the handsome, graceful Northern Pintail. Both Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal breed there, and stunning Ruddy Ducks, exceptionally rare as breeders, have also been documented this month by Sean and Maili.

Freshwater marsh birds have suffered enormous habitat losses since pre-colonial times, with something like 50% of their marshes having been drained or irrevocably altered. Luckily, South Monomoy offers extensive freshwater wetlands fringing its many ponds, and the recent surveys have illustrated their importance for species like the Common Gallinule. This cackling chicken of the marshes, much more common in the south, nests only in a few scattered sites in Massachusetts, where is it protected under the state Endangered Species Act. They noted up to three breeding pairs on Monomoy, making it perhaps the largest breeding population in the state. The same goes for Sora, another declining bird of freshwater cattail marshes, with up to 8 pairs of these seldom-seen skulkers counted in the south-end cattails.

While not forgotten, Arctic Terns did seem to be gone as breeding birds in Massachusetts. A century ago, pairs of this world-traveling seabird numbered in the hundreds, but none remain as far as we currently know. Offering a glimmer of hope, the survey team noted four adults hanging out near the big Common Tern colony on Monomoy in early July. Future surveys may confirm that the birding world’s champion longe distance migrant is indeed back in town.

It’s not easy to get to Monomoy, and even if you manage to reach the poison-ivy jungles of this remote island, it’s not always pleasant to get around. But maybe, like me, you take comfort in its existence as a wild, relatively untrammeled place, where obscure marsh birds and ducks still have the run of the joint. Where horseshoe crabs, barely hanging on everywhere else, still mate in numbers reminiscent of the old days, their eggs numerous enough to feed shorebirds.

It’s “Olde Cape Cod”, wilderness style, and I’m really glad it’s there.


This piece first aired in July, 2018.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.