Last week, I got the call I was hoping for – the one that brought a rare chance to get out to the storied, shifting sands of Monomoy. The call, which was actually an email of course, came from Brian Harrington, global shorebird expert and emeritus biologist with Manomet. We weren’t going out for recreational birding, this was serious work – we were participating in the nearly half-century-old International Shorebird Survey, or ISS, a little hemisphere-wide project started by Brian back in 1974.
Brian is one of those annoyingly ageless guys who, though he may have 25+ years on me, seems like he’ll outlive me. I think part of his secret is not wasting words – he’s not someone who needs to fill the silence with unnecessary talk. A few years back, he was still doing his shorebird work all around Monomoy and Pleasant Bay via kayak, until a close encounter with a great white shark convinced him to invest in a small aluminum skiff a little more resistant to shark teeth. That shark is why I had a ride on this perfect end-of-summer day.
Hundreds of thousands of shorebirds and seabirds breed, feed, and rest on Chatham’s barrier beaches. Importantly for these ISS surveys, thousands of normally kinetic shorebirds take a break from feeding to rest in certain parts of Monomoy during the high tide, at which point they are relatively easy to count. If you can hit several of these spots in one tide, and repeat this through the season and over the years, you can paint a pretty accurate picture of how shorebirds are using the Cape’s elbow.
To catch as many high tide roosts as possible, we did a bit of island hopping, with “islands” including glorified sandbars like tiny Minimoy and the more recently coined and even smaller Micromoy Islands in Nantucket Sound, plus the remnants of South Beach in Chatham. We saw a lot of birds – almost 150 Snowy Egrets feeding together by a sandbar, thousands of cormorants staging for migration, vast numbers of gulls, and clouds of shorebirds heading to roosts.
I love these clouds of shorebirds, a classic late summer scene in Chatham. But at one stop they were being rousted by a troublesome young Peregrine Falcon, bane of shorebird researchers everywhere. Just as we would settle in again to count the hundreds of birds before us – one Semipalmated Plover, two Semipalmated Plovers – the Peregrine would get up again and scatter them, completely scrambling their roosting spots and forcing another do-over. On one pass the Peregrine was successful, snatching some unfortunate sandpiper out of the air without even slowing down. One less to count.
I was struck by how few birds there were compared with what I remember to be the heyday of Chatham shorebirding, back in the early 2000s. But the real heyday for many migratory shorebirds, at least in modern times, was back in the 70s. The old ISS data has been entered into eBird, so you can see for yourself. Back then the high counts for Red Knots were 2 or 3 thousand, today they peak in the hundreds. Hudsonian Godwits could number 200 on the North Monomoy flats in the 70’s, now you are lucky to see one. We saw none the day I was out.
A recent paper using the ISS data says that most shorebirds in North America are showing declines, some fairly steep and accelerating. The causes are a little unclear and likely many – climate change, loss of stopover and wintering habitat, and oddly enough, overgrazing of their tundra nesting grounds by overpopulated geese. I don’t get out to Monomoy so much anymore, so I try to cherish every visit. I hope we can reverse these declines so maybe my 5-year-old son and I can someday see hundreds of godwits again on the Chatham flats. If I can ever get him to look at birds at all, that is.