CHATHAM – In 1944, Monomoy Island was a former bombing range popular with hunters and dotted with summer camps. Thanks to its location, it was also a key site along the Atlantic Flyway, the network of coastal areas that serve as stopovers for migrating shorebirds. The establishment of the island—then a peninsula—as a National Wildlife Refuge meant the preservation of thousands of acres of habitat critical to the preservation of species then on the brink of extinction, such as terns and plovers.
Today, the refuge, an island since 1958 (two since the February 1978 blizzard), hosts the largest tern colony on the eastern seaboard, with more than 13,000 pairs of the shorebirds nesting there every summer, along with dozens of other species. In 1970 it became the only federally designated Wilderness Area in southern New England.
To mark its 75the anniversary, the refuge is launching a new interactive exhibit in the Morris Island visitors center. The eight short videos focusing on different aspects of the refuge that form the core of the exhibit will be previewed at the Chatham Orpheum Theater on Saturday, May 18 in a free preview screening at 10 a.m. A question and answer session will follow the screening.
Titled “Explore The Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge,” the films highlight aspects of Monomoy most people never get to see, including work in the tern colony, the secretive horseshoe crab and restoration of the historic Monomoy Point Lighthouse and Keeper's House. Running about 45 minutes, the films are narrated by Sarah Colvin of the Cape Cod Media Center and were put together by volunteer Jan Crocker.
“This was really a joy to make,” said Crocker, an Orleans resident with a long history as a multimedia producer and museum exhibit designer.
Crocker has been working on the project for about two years. He started by assembling a database of some 17,000 files—photographs and videos—of the refuge, and initially planned a five- to seven-minute film that could be displayed in the visitors center.
“I started doing it and realized they do so much,” Crocker said. “We can't say everything in seven minutes.”
Working with Refuge Manager Matt Hillman, Crocker revamped the project and broke it down into eight separate films, each about four to five minutes long. He drew footage from a variety of sources, including video shot by refuge staff and interns and some he recorded himself. In Maryland the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a stash of resources featuring shorebirds, and material was licensed from PBS and other sources. Drone footage of the refuge was shot by Michael Moore of Woods Hole under a special permit; an offshore vessel was used as a base to avoid landing the drone on the island.
“The drone footage is the Elmer's Glue of the presentation,” Crocker said, noting how the aerial shots of the refuge knit together the different chapters. Segments of the presentation focus on salt marshes, horseshoe crabs, migratory birds, Morris Island, the tern colony, piping plovers, the lighthouse and gray seals.
The finished product represents tens of thousands of dollars worth of work, but the total cost to the refuge was about $2,500, mostly for hardware, while the Friends of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge contributed another $2,000 for equipment and film rights. An exhibit room at the Morris Island visitors center is being renovated and the new interactive display will form the centerpiece; older, more static exhibits are being updated and refuge technician Amanda Adams is painting wall murals featuring the different bird species seen on Monomoy.
“We're pretty excited about these improvements,” Hillman said.
The interactive display will be shown on a 55-inch wall-mounted monitor; a button box in front of it will allow viewers to choose which topic to view. The goal is to show visitors the breadth of activities and wildlife on the refuge; most people who come to the center, which sees some 40,000 visitors a year, never make it to the island. Many others walk the beach on the 40-acre Morris Island portion of the refuge but don't stop at the visitors center.
“There's so much more here than meets the eye,” Crocker said.
“We hope this will get people more involved, rather than just going to the beach,” added Steve Keenan, president of the Friends group.
Crocker said he hopes the presentation will peak the interest of children. “The real science and education is in these stories,” he said. He expects the display to have “long legs.”
“The satisfaction I'll get from this comes from people being able to enjoy it for years,” he said.
The project wouldn't have been possible without Crocker, Hillman said. The refuge was “unbelievably fortunate to have him and his leadership, and all the products he's created for us.” He also thanks the Friends for stepping up with financial and volunteer assistance.
While free, tickets for the May 18 screening at the Orpheum are limited and can be obtained at the Main Street theater now. A preview of the display can be seen at vimeo.com/313853371.