Common Terns and Roseate Terns
Staging common and roseate terns

Photo by Karli Rogers

Birds are perhaps the most conspicuous and easily observed of the Cape Cod National Seashore’s wildlife. The fascinating diversity, behaviors, and life cycles of birds have inspired awe for generations and often put birds at the forefront of conservation efforts. Although some birds are nocturnal, secretive, or well camouflaged, many species are active and out in the open during daylight hours, visible to even the most casual observer. The seashore’s 46,000 acres of fresh water, marine, and uplands provide a wide range of critical habitat for the roughly 370 species of birds that occur here. About 80 of these birds nest and raise their young during the spring and summer months. The remaining, non-breeding birds use the seashore during migration and to overwinter.

Migratory birds visiting the seashore commonly travel north and south along the Atlantic Flyway between breeding and wintering grounds, for some species as far north as the Arctic and as far south as the Antarctic. Cape Cod’s array of habitats and geographic position (being at mid-latitudes and jutting into the Atlantic) make the national seashore a prime “staging” (or resting and feeding) area for many migratory birds during the spring and fall months.

Whether it’s watching an egret hunt for a fish in the salt marsh or a hawk keying into prey, we urge visitors to grab a pair of binoculars and to take advantage of the ever changing and diverse assortment of birds that rely on the Seashore to nest, feed and rest. Some great places to watch birds include Fort Hill, Nauset Marsh, Pilgrim Heights, Beech Forest, and Hatches Harbor, to name a few. Checklists and field guides can be obtained at the bookstore at Salt Pond Visitor Center.

Piping plover incubating a nest
A piping plover sits atop its barely discernible eggs.

NPS Photo

The Piping Plover

A species of particular management concern is the piping plover. The piping plover is small, sandy-colored shorebird that was once abundant on Cape Cod beaches and throughout their range. The adults, eggs and chicks blend into the pale background of open, sandy habitat on outer beaches where they feed and nest. By the 1940’s, habitat loss and an increase in recreational use on beaches cause the population to decline dramatically. Because of this, it was listed as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act in 1986. Although the population has increased since its listing, presently there are less than 2000 pairs along the Atlantic Coast and it is designated as threatened, which means that the population would be likely to decline if not protected.

More Information on Piping Plovers


Visiting Beaches While Nesting Shorebirds Are Present

These guidelines pertain primarily to groups visiting Cape Cod National Seashore beaches from April through July. We suggest that group leaders stop at Salt Pond or Province Lands Visitor Centers to ask about the locations of nesting shorebirds and any regulations currently in place. The objective is to reduce stress on the birds caused by disturbance by visitors.
General rules to reduce disturbance:
  • The smaller the group the better (10 or less is preferable).
  • Always look down the beach with binoculars to see what bird activity is ahead of you before you take the group. This is especially important when there are chicks on the beach that could be anywhere.
  • Before you get to the nesting area, explain to the group that they should try to be as quiet as possible and limit their movement when they get close to the nest site.
  • For all groups, but especially larger groups of 10 or more, stop approximately 20 meters before you reach the symbolic fencing (or chicks).
  • Stay far enough away that your presence is not altering the behavior of the bird (i.e. feeding, incubating eggs). If you see the adult bird get off the nest or an adult bird is approaching you doing the “broken-wing” behavior, back up. If they don’t return to the nest or are still exhibiting stressed behaviors (bobbing head, peeping, broken-wing), you should leave the area.
  • Do not linger in front of the symbolic (post and string) fencing or near chicks. It’s best to quietly walk by.
  • To avoid the chance of chicks being accidently stepped on, large groups should try to avoid areas with 1- 3 day old shorebird chicks. Chicks this young are very hard to see and will often crouch down in the sand when they are disturbed or feel threatened. You can check with the shorebird staff prior to your program to get up-to-date information on recent hatchings.
  • If you see an adult bird “brooding” the chicks (that’s when the chicks are under the adult bird), walk around them. The same is true if you see the adults/chicks feeding.
  • Never follow a chick(s) or get too close.
  • A rule of thumb is to walk as low down on the beach as possible allowing for the greatest distance from the nesting area (symbolic fencing). This will reduce disturbance to the incubating shorebirds and tern chicks.

Last updated: January 30, 2018

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99 Marconi Site Road
Wellfleet, MA 02667


(508) 255-3421

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