Monomoy Refuge: Home To Terns, Tents And Trash

By: Kira Barrett

Topics: Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge , Conservation

Kate Iaquinto, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, leads the way toward where seabirds, including common and roseate terns, are nesting at the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge.  KAT SZMIT PHOTO

CHATHAM – On a small island situated on the elbow of Cape Cod, thousands of piercing cries from birds can be heard virtually any time, day or night. This is Monomoy Island, a bird sanctuary monitored and maintained by the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.

Monomoy is currently home to around 11,700 pairs of birds – that’s 23,000 individual birds, and the number just keeps growing.

“We’ve been increasing terns about a thousand pairs every year,” said refuge biologist Kate Iaquinto.

Along with common terns, the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge monitors roseate terns, American oystercatchers and piping plovers. Roseate terns, distinguishable from common terns by their split tails, are federally endangered. Only 16 pairs currently live on Monomoy. Even less ubiquitous are black skimmers. This year, Refuge staff spotted two black skimmer nests for the first time since 2011.

Although the birds are sweet and delicate in appearance, don’t be fooled: hard hats are mandatory for anyone who enters the sanctuary. Their territorial and protective nature can cause them to peck at passersby.

The refuge is composed of three islands, North Monomoy, South Monomoy and “Minimoy.” South Monomoy is the largest bird nesting area where most of the biological work is conducted. Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge staff members live in a field camp on the island seven days a week beginning in early May through to the end of July. They live in tents with no running water, no electricity and no toilets, but are provided a fridge powered by propane. There they monitor population growth, health, interaction between the different species and the kind of fish they consume.

“Twenty-four hour human presence is necessary around the tern colony to keep predators away,” Iaquinto said. Predators include gulls, herons, small mammals and even coyotes.

Unlike most other birds, terns prefer to nest on flat, open ground and offshore islands and don’t tolerate beaches with a lot of public use. Most of South Monomoy is off-limits to visitors during the nesting season. Any visitors must therefore pay close attention when walking through the island to avoid accidentally stepping on any chicks or un-hatched eggs.

“Beaches like this are really important to maintain for them because otherwise they wouldn’t have anywhere else to go. There’s not a lot of permanently protected places like this,” Iaquinto explained.

Vegetation is also heavily monitored. Every few years, the refuge burns away excess grass that has grown too thickly to make room for nesting habitat. When they nest too close together, competition arises that may result in terns killing each other’s chicks. Vital to the increase of the tern population, the “slash-and-burn” technique of removing plant-life is a reminder of the extensive human interference required in maintaining the refuge.

In fact, the more one explores the island, the harder it gets to avoid noticing its paradoxical nature. A place for wild birds to thrive in, Monomoy is at the same time hyper-controlled by man. Small man-made structures used by roseate terns to nest under have been strategically placed throughout the island. The refuge practices gull removal, as they are a common predator of terns. Visitors are not allowed to camp on it, and yet researchers camp there 24-hours a day for months at a time.

Despite efforts to control the environment, as with any other beach on Cape Cod, Monomoy collects its share of trash and litter. This poses a direct threat to the birds that live there. Washed-up fishing totes and hooks and lines are common dangers to the birds and can cause choking and entanglement. But the most frequent types of litter are balloons.

“We did a project last year where we took a couple of days at the end of the season and collected just balloons,” Iaquinto said. “We usually have an Earth Day beach cleanup at the beginning of the season. The problem is, as soon as we clean it up, it gets full again.” And because Monomoy is an island, cleaning it poses a challenge. “Out here, there’s nobody to pick up the garbage. We have to fill up our boat with it and there’s just so much of it, it’s impossible to clean it all,” Iaquinto said.