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“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

A Trip to Monomoy Wildlife Refuge, Part 1

Dear Bird Folks,

A birder friend of mine is coming to visit in a few weeks and I’d like to take her on a real special bird walk. I’ve heard that Monomoy Wildlife Refuge is the best place to go, but I don’t know anything about it. Have you ever been to Monomoy and would you recommend it?

– Roger, Brewster, MA


Funny you should ask, Roger,

I just came back from a birding trip to Monomoy and it is indeed a great place to go birding. But how I ended up on Monomoy is a story in itself. I’ll be glad to tell you all about Monomoy, but only if you are willing to listen to my story first. Deal? Okay, here’s my story.

I think we’ve all been to a charity auction. (Don’t worry, this will all tie in by the end of the paragraph.) Most charity auctions usually have a few good prizes such as a new boat or even a trip to Europe, but those prizes are customarily for the high rollers. The rest of us end up bidding on gift certificates to local restaurants, some artwork or an ugly lamp that nobody wants. Well, every summer Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary has one of these charity events, called “Wild, Wild, Wellfleet.” Even though I always sponsor the event, I never go. (I already have all the ugly lamps I can use.) But this year I was somehow duped into stopping by the gala for “just for a minute.” Against my better judgment I agreed to show up for one minute. After all, how bad could a single minute be? I soon found out. The second I arrived I was hustled up on stage. Why? It turns out I was to be an auction item. Before I could even focus on what was happening the auctioneer started calling out numbers, hands began rising and people were actually bidding…on me. When the smoke finally cleared two people agreed to spend a total of $5,000 for the privilege of going birding with me on Monomoy. Yes, you read that right; they spent $5,000 for me. What were these people thinking? They didn’t even check my teeth or anything.

What they didn’t tell the bidders was that I don’t know a thing about birding Monomoy. I was only there once before, and that was twenty years ago to help paint the old lighthouse. Fortunately, the folks at Mass Audubon knew better than to send me to an island, alone, with some of their top supporters. To make sure I didn’t screw things up too badly, Wellfleet Bay’s sanctuary director, Bob Prescott, also came along. I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a birding trip with Bob, but if you haven’t, put it high on your to-do list. The amount of nature knowledge he possesses is actually scary. The minute the boat left the harbor (yes, a boat, but that’s another story) Bob began explaining to all of us about what makes Monomoy such a special place.

Until the late 1950s Monomoy was a thin peninsula connected to the southern tip of Chatham. In those days birders could actually drive there and didn’t need to climb aboard a dreaded boat. But in 1958 a storm cut the peninsula off from the rest of Chatham and the peninsula become Monomoy Island. It remained an island for the next twenty years until the Blizzard of ’78 chopped Monomoy in half, creating two separate islands. The new north island is now called “North Monomoy,” while the new south island is “South Monomoy.” (Talk about being creative.) South Monomoy is where we were heading. South Monomoy affords great birding opportunities because it has several things birds like, including salt marshes, mud flats, fresh water ponds and the most important ingredient of all, very few people.

When the boat landed we all took our shoes and socks off and waded ashore. Then we sat on the beach, put our shoes and socks back on and headed across the island. After a short walk we came to a very wet salt marsh. On Bob’s command we all marched right into the ankle-deep water. I started laughing as I thought about how everyone worked so hard to keep their shoes dry back at the boat landing and now we were all slogging through the water, shoes and all. No one seemed to mind, however. I think we felt like kids doing something that we might get in trouble for, but since Bob was in charge, we knew it would be okay.

Our first stop was at an area called the “Powder Hole.” Rumor has it that the Powder Hole was so named because the U.S. Navy used to store explosives there. Instead of dredging the channels around Monomoy, the Navy tried to remove dangerous sandbars by blowing them up. However, according to some observers, the exploding sand merely went high in the air and then came back down exactly where it started. (I guess not everything can be fixed with dynamite.) Today the Powder Hole is a large salt marsh, with extensive mud flats. I know the words “mud flats” give most folks an image of something smelly and buggy, but on this day it was beautiful. The air was cool, the sky was blue and everything was totally peaceful. There was no traffic, no honking horns and no screaming children (except for me when I stepped on a fiddler crab). But more importantly, there were birds, lots and lots of birds. Birds where everywhere. What species of birds, you ask? I’ll tell you what we saw next week, but right now I have to bandage my foot. Stupid fiddler crab.