Monomoy’s Nesting Birds

South Monomoy’s Grassland Nesting Shorebird*
The Willet (and the Laughing Gull) also nested in the census area


The Willet is a rather large, rather plain shorebird that has returned to the northeast’s estuaries over the last fifty years becoming what is now a rather common nesting bird in the right habitat. It was almost exactly a century from the previous nesting record when, in 1977, Dick Forster (et al) discovered a nesting pair of Willet on Monomoy Island. The previous nesting instance (1877) punctuated the disappearance of Willet due to the impact of egg-collecting and market gunning in the late 1800’s (Veit & Petersen).

When we censused the Common Terns on the north end of South Monomoy Island we found (and heard) a slew of Willet. Finding them is not for the faint of heart as they wait until your foot is descending toward the nest before they burst up-and-out with a squawk. We didn’t step on any of the nests and we found and flagged 25 such nests just on the north end of the island in the tern colony area. There are certainly many more on Minimoy, North Monomoy, South Beach, Nauset Marsh, North Beach Island, and the rest of South Monomoy.

From 1974-1979 Massachusetts birders censused the breeding birds of the Commonwealth (Breeding Bird Atlas = BBA); Willet were recorded as “possible”, “probable” or “confirmed” breeders in four topographic (map) blocks. In the latest Breeding Bird Atlas (2007-2011) they appeared in 97 blocks including the South Coast, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and densely on the North Shore and Cape Cod. They were confirmed in 53 places. They have returned with a vengeance – good for them!

The Willet is a rather plain bird on the ground but once it spreads its wings it becomes very visible and strikingly patterned. It is also very loud in defense of its nesting area and thus they are very easy to spot – the nests are not so easy however. The eggs are colored much like Common Tern and Laughing Gull eggs as convergent evolution has determined that this is pretty successful pattern for beach and dune nesting birds.

To many it seems odd that the Cape is known for sandpipers of all sorts in large and small numbers but that almost no species nest here*. The Piping Plover and Willet are pretty much it as far as the casual observer goes. The rest of this highly mobile group stage here as they head both north and south on their lengthy and often mind-boggling migrations. The northward moving birds are all adults and most species are capable of breeding in their first adult season; providing the females can get enough food to allow for the development of eggs. They pass along the coast in late April and May. Most will be on nests in various tundra habitats by mid-June. Many of these adults, leave their energetic and capable young on the nesting grounds, start southward in July, traveling slowly with longer stops than they had on the more urgent trip northward. The adults pass through Massachusetts mostly in July and August to be followed by a surge of youngsters in late August and September. But all sorts of rarities show up throughout the year on these remote sand and mud flats and barrier beaches.

Aerial images of Willet were not too difficult to get as they hovered overhead as we passed through their nesting sites. It is one of those things where you shouldn’t do it at home – stress and teaching predators where nests are always concerns when censusing ground nesting birds.
The Willet nests were in the dune grass areas not so much in the colony itself. Thus we would have a bit of an intensity-break as we walked more quickly through the grassy areas when the Willet would erupt from the thatch and startle us. The eggs of the Willet are rather large for a shorebird. The tern eggs seem large as well. The young of these species are precocial and thus hatch with down and curiosity. The larger eggs give them a better opportunity to grow and hatch as little wanderers.
After the female bursts off the nest the eggs are not always easy to find. They are often in tall grasses and the nests are made of the same dry vegetation that tangles your feet at every step.

The Willet is one of only two shorebirds to commonly nest in Massachusetts; the other is the Piping Plover which nests on the edges of sandy beaches. Piping Plover numbers are actually quite small though their impact on beach management remains quite large.We also have a small population of American Oystercatchers breeding as well – perhaps this will be the next bird to increase on our remote coastal dunes and flats.

 The Laughing Gull was confirmed was a breeding bird in only two blocks this past BBA however it was observed in eight blocks during the nesting season and as a visitor in 70 more blocks. This is another bird that was decimated by plume-hunters in the late 19th century. They have been expanding northward over the past fifty to seventy years.

The Laughing Gulls nest in thick, and seemingly moist, vegetation in swales and hollows in the grassy dunes. They are often associated with Poison Ivy patches, Beach Rose, and Seaside Goldenrod. One of the great treats that the Laughing Gulls provide is at the end of the summer when  the common ant of the sand dunes sends forth tens of thousands of gravid females prospecting for drones and suitable habitat to start a new colony. The Laughing Gulls “flycatch” these ants hour-on-end sometimes following them inland as the sea breezes carry the ants away from the dunes.

* The Breeding Bird Atlas (BBA1) shows that Piping Plover1, Killdeer2, American Oystercatcher1, Willet1, Spotted Sandpiper2, Upland Sandpiper2, Least Sandpiper1, Wilson’s Snipe2, American Woodcock2, and Wilson’s Phalarope3 nested in Massachusetts. The more recent BBA2 shows the same species again. Those birds with a 1 adjacent to their name are beach nesters, those with a  2 are inland (woods and grasslands) nesters, and the 3 is for a usually grassy swamp nesting species.

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