Birding South Beach

Birding on South Beach,
Chatham, Massachusetts

N.B. The following information on South Beach was originally written about a decade ago, when birding at this every-changing site was in its hey-day. Over the past several years, geomorphological  changes have resulted in both a diminution of the number of birds utilizing the area — the birds becoming more widely dispersed along the eastern shore of Chatham — as well as made access increasingly difficult. Thus, much of the information below is no longer accurate. At this time (March 2014) it is unclear whether South Beach will be accessible at all this summer, further dramatic changes having occurred this past winter. I plan to revise this section later this year, once the situation becomes better known. In the meantime, the following should be considered an historical document, rather than a current and reliable guide.

Over the past couple of decades, South Beach, located in Chatham, Massachusetts, at the southeastern corner of New England, has developed into one of the premier birding spots on the Eastern Seaboard of North America. The concentrations of shorebirds, terns, gulls, waterfowl, and seabirds provide, at times, a spectacular birding experience. A barrier beach extending south and east from the mainland of Chatham, South Beach is constantly changing and being reshaped by the Atlantic’s battering surf. Although a section devoted to this popular birding destination appears in the revised edition of Birding Cape Cod (published by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and Cape Cod Bird Club), the rapidly changing physical structure of the beach and consequent impact on the bird life, make any description of the area through traditional print media outdated almost before it appears. Thus, the web seems a perfect outlet to keep birders up-to-date about accessing and birding this dynamic area.

The Beach

Amazingly, this remarkable birding hotspot did not even exist 25 years ago! Once the southern portion of North (or Nauset) Beach, which runs south from the town of Orleans into Chatham, South Beach achieved its own identity in January 1987 when a severe winter storm broke through the barrier beach directly east of Chatham Light, creating a broad inlet that remains today. Initially an island, the northern tip of the beach soon re-connected to the mainland just south of Chatham Light, making it accessible by foot. The southern end of the spit expanded steadily southward, growing by well over a mile in a couple of decades. In November of 2006, the southern tip of the beach connected to the north end of South Monomoy, creating a land bridge from Chatham Light to Monomoy Light.

In February 2013 a severe winter storm cut a new inlet through the beach, about a mile southeast of Morris Island. Thus the beach now consists of two spits, one running south from Chatham Light for about two miles, and one running north from South Monomoy for about three miles. Consequently, the southern portion (“South South Beach?!), where the largest concentrations of birds occur, is once again accessible only by boat. Most of South Beach is composed of dune habitats, sparsely vegetated with beach grass (Ammophila) and a few stunted shrubs (mostly bayberry). Additionally – and most significantly – extensive tidal flats are present on the west (inner) side of the beach, particularly along the southern third or so. Increasingly, the inner portions of the flats are developing into patches of salt marsh vegetated with Cord Grass (Spartina alterniflora).

Local birders continue to watch this geological metamorphosis with great interest, eager to see how the area’s abundant avifauna adapts to the inexorable changes in this dynamic and ephemeral corner of the world. Free of vehicle traffic since the 1987 break, the beach still attracts considerable boat and foot traffic during the summer, but, for the most part – and especially in comparison to other such areas on Cape Cod – remains largely undisturbed and pristine. The avifauna has responded to this seclusion and the expanding, food-rich flats. The concentrations of shorebirds, terns, gulls, and seabirds are among the most impressive anywhere in the Northeast, typically exceeding those found even on South Beach’s renowned neighbor to the west, Monomoy.

This Google satellite image of the South Beach area was taken at low tide in 2010. The location of the ferries (see access), the ferry drop-off point, the prime birding area, and other key features are marked in red.

 

Birding South Beach

When to visit: Although birding on South Beach can be productive at almost any time of the year, early summer through late fall is when the most spectacular concentrations occur. A trip in the spring can be rewarding, though shorebird concentrations typically are less impressive than later in the year, and the prospects for raptors or seabirds (other than gannets) are less at this season as well. Peak shorebird and tern concentrations occur from mid July into early September (though thousands of shorebirds, primarily Dunlin, Sanderlings, and Black-bellied Plovers, remain into November), while falcons are most numerous from mid September into early November, sea ducks from mid October into early December, and pelagics most anytime (or not at all!) from mid June into December.

While many birds may be present on the beach at any tide, and the lower half of the tidal cycle is better for terns roosting on the flats, the largest concentrations by far occur at high tide, and birders should time their visits accordingly. High tide on South Beach generally runs about an hour later than Boston. Generally, the higher the tide the better, those tides running about 10 feet and above in Boston being optimal; these tides occur during and just after the periods of the full and new moons (“spring” tides). During the lower high tides (“neap” tides), some birds will roost on Monomoy or the exposed bars to the west, resulting in somewhat diminished (though still significant) concentrations on South Beach.

This aerial photo of South Beach shows the southern half of the beach, where most of the birds congregate. It was taken at low tide and is from 2010. From the ferry drop-off point to the southern end of the beach is about 2.25 miles.

 

 

Where the Birds are: The best birding is on the southern third or so of the beach, where the vast majority of the birds are to be found. This area is more than a mile south of the standard ferry drop-off spot (and shifts a bit farther south each year). Some of the largest concentrations are now (2011) found at the cove on the extreme southern end of the beach (labelled South Cove on the accompanying photo), where it connects to South Monomoy. The inside shore on the northern part of the beach (just south of Chatham Light), when not overrun with sunbathers, often attracts a few roosting shorebirds, gulls, and terns at high tide. At low tide the flats here may have a modest number and variety of feeding shorebirds. Both American Avocet and Gull-billed Tern have been found here, Black Skimmers are seen occasionally, and Forster’s Terns can be numerous in the late summer through early fall. If traveling to South Beach from Outermost Marine (see access), this area can be given a cursory check from the boat as you leave the marina.

About a half mile south of the north end, roughly opposite the observation deck on the northeast corner of Morris Island, is another small area of flats and low bars that often attracts a few terns and gulls; this area can be scoped (albeit distantly) from Morris Island. Although it’s possible to bird the beach fairly well in 3–4 hours, a longer trip will afford a much more leisurely and thorough investigation of the area’s bird life. During the peak season (July – October) one will have no trouble staying occupied for several hours. The ferry services generally operate daily from 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., but call ahead to confirm.

The Birds of South Beach

Although large concentrations of birds occur on South Beach at all seasons, most birders are attracted by the exceptional numbers of shorebirds and terns that roost on the beach at high tide during the warmer months. Many birds fly over from the vast Monomoy flats to roost here, particularly during the higher lunar tides. From mid-July into the fall, the number of shorebirds present at high tide has exceeded 10,000 individuals, and during the peak of migration in late July and early August has approached 20,000 birds, with daily lists in excess of 15 shorebird species typical, and 25 or more species possible. (When a passing raptor or jaeger flushes these masses of birds, a mind-boggling display of avian mayhem may ensue!) More recently, cord grass (Spartina alterniflora) has colonized many of the former roosting sites, which, combined with improvement of habitats a few miles to the north in Pleasant Bay, has resulted in a dimishment in the number of shorebirds utlizing South Beach.

Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Sanderling, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Dunlin, and Short-billed Dowitcher are the most abundant species, each typically peaking at 2000+ individuals. Less numerous, but still common, are Piping Plover, American Oystercatcher, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, White-rumped Sandpiper, and Least Sandpiper. Hudsonian Godwits used to peak at a hundred or so individuals from mid-July through mid-August, but now rarely number more than 50 birds; despite this decline, this remains one of the best locations in the country to see this remarkable migrant. At least 25 species of shorebirds occur annually, and rarities such as Red-necked Stint and Curlew Sandpiper have been found with some regularity. Piping Plovers nest commonly on the beach, and during August and September small groups of post-breeders/migrants, occasionally numbering 40–50+ birds, can be found (usually on the outer beach at the southern tip).

Several pairs of American Oystercatchers also nest, and post-breeding flocks have numbered upwards of 200+ birds. Rounding out the nesting shorebirds, Willets have become numerous in the expanding patches of salt marsh, and during the early summer become aggresively conspicuous. By late July, augmented by migrants, they can number well over 200 individuals. Among these typically are 10-20+ individuals of the western race, inornatus, considered by some to be a distinct species.

Small numbers of Least Terns often nest on the beach, though often with minimal success. Although Common Terns have not yet nested, a large colony, comprising thousands of pairs, is present on the north end of South Monomoy just a few hundred yards to the west, and these birds are much in evidence from early May through the summer. Flocks numbering hundreds to thousands of terns occasionally loaf on South Beach, particularly when the tidal flats are exposed. A few Roseate Terns can occasionally be found during the spring and early summer, and during the late summer many hundreds of this species may stage in the area prior to migrating south. Although Arctic Terns no longer nest in the area, an occasional adult drops in during spring migration, and during the summer one-year old birds (the so-called “portlandica” plumage) are usually present, their numbers ranging from a few individuals to several dozen in some years. Small numbers of Black Terns and Forster’s Terns also are regular from mid July into the fall, and Black Skimmers, which also nest on Monomoy, are seen from time to time. Rarer species such as Royal, Sandwich, and Gull-billed Terns occasionally appear, and in 2002, New England’s first Elegant Tern spent most of August in the area.

Pelagic birds are another – albeit sporadic – feature, the area being one of the better on the East Coast for land-based observations of these ocean wanderers. As is typical elsewhere, the presence of seabirds here is frustratingly unpredictable, as often as not the ocean being distressingly devoid of avian activity. At times, however, hundreds, occasionally even thousands, of storm-petrels and/or shearwaters are in evidence, some very close to shore. Wilson’s Storm-Petrels can be common from early June through the late summer. Sooty Shearwaters are most likely during the early summer (early June through early August), with Great Shearwaters predominating during the late summer and fall (July into early November). Manx Shearwaters can occasionally be picked out among their larger congeners, and a few Cory’s Shearwaters show up in some years. Thousands of Northern Gannets transit the coast during their spring and (especially) fall migrations, occasionally coalescing into spectacular feeding frenzies. Black-legged Kittiwakes and Razorbills can also be numerous during the late fall and early winter.

The large concentration of terns in the area attracts jaegers, primarily Parasitic, from late July into the late fall, and these pelagic pirates occasionally put on spectacular displays of their aerial skills. They are not at all hesitant to cross directly over the beach in pursuit of an unfortunate victim, often providing birders with unsurpassed views; few places on the East Coast afford a better opportunity to study their myriad plumages or enjoy their rowdy behavior. Indeed, these tireless rogues can become a nuisance at times, constantly flushing not only the tern flocks, but the shorebirds as well, frustrating one’s efforts to find and study some calidrid waif among the roosting masses – more than one observer has watched helplessly as a stint or some other potential vagrant vanished into a swirling cloud of panicked birds!

From late fall through the winter, sea ducks are often impressively abundant. Common Eiders typically are most numerous, but all three scoters as well as Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers can also be abundant. Both Common and Red-throated Loons are common migrants, the latter often passing by the hundreds on some days late in the fall.

Northern Harriers have nested on the beach, though not for many years, and regularly course the dunes at all seasons. From mid-September through November (less commonly in the spring), Peregrine Falcons and Merlins routinely wreak havoc among the lingering shorebirds, and during flight years a Snowy Owl or two may lord over the winter beach. Large flocks of Snow Buntings move through during November and early December, while small groups of Lapland Longspurs often consort with the Horned Larks in the fall. The “Ipswich” race of Savannah Sparrow is also a regular transient at this season.

When northwest winds displace migrant songbirds to the coast in the fall, a few may seek temporary shelter in the sparse dune vegetation. Although birds may be the visitor’s primary focus, it is impossible not to notice and delight in the hundreds of Gray Seals that feed in the adjacent waters and loaf on the outer beaches. Recently, the burgeoning seal population has attracted one of the ultimate marine predators, Great White Sharks. Though they hunt seals close to shore, the chances of seeing one of these behemoths from the beach are almost nil. Coyotes also inhabit the beach, but are adept at staying out of sight during daylight hours.

Access

For the first few years following its separation, South Beach was an island, accessible only by boat. During the early 1990s, sand washing in the new inlet created a broad sandy bridge connecting the north end of the beach to the mainland. Thus, for several years it was possible to walk out the beach from just below Chatham Light, though it was a very long, arduous hike of at least 8–10 miles round-trip through soft sand. Now it is possible to walk only as far as the new inlet, a little over two miles one-way. Parking is also a problem, however, as there is a 30-minute time limit at the Chatham Light parking lot, the only public parking anywhere near the area (though this time limit seems to be enforced only during the busy tourist season, roughly from Memorial Day through Columbus Day).

Far and away the easiest means of access during the warmer months is with the private ferry service operating from the mainland, or with a guided tour. Information on these various options is presented below. As of 2012, there is only one ferry service providing transportation to South Beach (as well as Monomoy island): Rip Ryder Ferry. Outermost Harbor Marine formerly offered ferry service to the beach, but has discontinued that operation (though they may still be willing to take larger groups over).

Another option is guided tours offered by the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary; some local bird clubs also offer one or more trips annually. The Rip Ryder ferry operates from the parking lot at the Monomoy NWR headquarters (though is not affiliated with the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service) on Morris Island, about a mile south of Chatham Light. As you enter the parking lot watch for the ferry signs. Because parking space is limited at the refuge headquarters, ferry customers are usually required to park on the Morris Island causeway and be shuttled back by van. The ferry generally runs daily (weather permitting) except Sundays from 8:00 a.m – 5:00 p.m., mid June through August, and less frequently during May, September, and early October. However, the service to South Beach is somewhat erratic, so be sure to call for the latest. For additional information check www.monomoyislandferry.com or call: 508-237-0420 or 774-722-1336. The fee to South Beach as of 2012 is $25/person, but with a minimum of several people.

Those who are unfamiliar with the area or the local bird life may wish to take part in a group trip, and there are several options available. Guided birding and natural history tours are offered by the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (508-349-2615). The trips run 3-4 hours in length and cost about $30-$35 for Massachusetts Audubon Society members and about $35-$40 for non-members. Several local bird clubs, including the Brookline Bird Club, the Cape Cod Bird Club, the South Shore Bird Club, and the Hampshire Bird Club, usually schedule one or more trips during the summer; check their web sites for schedules.

Another alternative for the ambitious birder is to launch a canoe or kayak from the small cove east of the Morris Island causeway (park along the east side of the causeway) — in the past it’s been a fairly safe trip if there is little wind, but it’s not yet clear what impact the new inlet will have. Be sure to get the latest weather forecast before embarking and keep a cautious eye out for the extensive power boat traffic in the area!

There are absolutely no facilities on South Beach and very little cover, so be sure to drain your bladder before leaving the mainland! Public toilets are available at the Monomoy NWR headquarters on Morris Island. At Outermost Marine toilets are available for customers only. No facilities are available at Chatham Light. Plan to carry all of the food and drink you’ll need for the day, and expect to get your feet wet; getting in and out of the boat often requires wading up to your knees. Temperatures on the beach typically average several degrees cooler than on the mainland, and can drop dramatically with a shift in the wind, so be sure to take an extra layer of clothing. Greenhead flies can be bothersome during mid-summer (increasingly so, as the salt marsh expands), and on the rare windless days the maddening no-see-ums can drive one to distraction. No matter how you get to the beach, you should expect to do a great deal of walking through soft sand and mud. The standard ferry drop-off point is about half way down the beach, well over a mile north of the prime birding flats. Getting in and out of the boats also requires a modest degree of dexterity. Those with mobility problems will find access very difficult, at best.

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