A body of water lies behind a sandy beach covered by shorebirds. One bird is flying in the foreground with something in its bill while other birds fly by in the background.
Cape Cod National Seashore protects critical breeding habitat and migration stop-over areas for many species of shorebirds.

NPS/Kekoa Rosehill

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.

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.
A tan and white chick stands with its wings spread on a sandy beach. A tan and white chick stands with its wings spread on a sandy beach.

With implemented habitat protections, future generations of shorebirds can continue to utilize Cape Cod National Seashore as a place for breeding and staging.
NPS Photos/Joey Negreann


Source: Data Store Collection 6601. To search for additional information, visit the Data Store.


Cape Cod National Seashore Waterbird Reports are available below. These large (8+ megabyte) pdf files are screen reader compatible for those who are blind or have low vision.

Source: Data Store Collection 8018. To search for additional information, visit the Data Store.


Frequently Asked Questions about Shorebird Management Activities

Cape Cod National Seashore (Seashore) is home to several species of shorebirds that use beaches for breeding, nesting, feeding, and resting during migrations. They are a key component of the Cape Cod ecosystem and contribute to the beach experience enjoyed by millions of visitors. Piping plover, least tern, American oystercatcher, roseate tern, and red knot shorebirds are considered endangered, threatened, or species of special concern by federal and state governments. The seashore works with other federal agencies (especially US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and United States Geological Survey (USGS)) and local partners to conserve the birds under the requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and other laws, policies, and regulations.

Cape Cod National Seashore’s Shorebird Management Plan was finalized in 2019 and a formal consultation with the USFWS resulted in a Biological Opinion being administered in July 2021. These documents enable the Seashore to conserve these birds while continuing to provide access and public enjoyment of beaches. The plan, developed through a formal Environmental Assessment, resulted from a complex eight-year process that involved many agencies and the public -- including local residents, the recreation community, visitors, wildlife organizations, and other stakeholders. The plan and Biological Opinion, which has a term of ten years (2031), inform the seashore’s approach to monitoring and managing shorebirds. These activities include scientific monitoring of birds during the breeding season, the placement of physical barriers to separate nesting birds from people and pets, steps to reduce predation on birds and eggs through lethal (this has not been implemented yet) and non-lethal methods and providing current information to visitors. NPS staff, local residents, partners, and visitors regularly see signs of shorebird management activities from spring through fall. This document aims to provide information and answer questions about Cape Cod National Seashore’s Shorebird Management Program.

Shorebird Management FAQ Document

Shorebirds are essential parts of the Cape Cod ecosystem that the NPS manages. For many complex reasons -- including unregulated hunting, women’s hat fashions, habitat loss, and unregulated recreation in breeding areas – shorebird populations declined over decades to the point where many species are now designated as either threatened or endangered. The Seashore is legally required under the ESA to protect the birds and their breeding habitat in an effort to increase their population sizes. Staff conduct and apply science to understand these birds and make management decisions.

Shorebird protection in the seashore uses four primary activities: research and monitoring, fencing and signage, pet restrictions and non-lethal and lethal predator management.

  1. Staff conduct regular monitoring efforts to measure the population sizes, reproductive behaviors, and habitat use during the breeding season every year.

  2. On most beaches the park uses symbolic fencing (string attached to wooden stakes along the beach), nest exclosures, and beach usage restrictions to protect birds and their nests from people who walk, drive, explore, or bring their pets to the beaches.

  3. The park closes beaches to pets when shorebirds are breeding in the area.

  4. Finally, the park has the option to use non-lethal methods (e.g., electrified perimeter around nest exclosures) and lethal methods (hunting, poisoning) to reduce predation. The park has not implemented lethal predator control measures yet.

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. 

In 2022, Cape Cod National Seashore supported 116 breeding pairs which was an increase from 2021 (113 pairs) and the most breeding pairs observed in the park in over two decades. The percentage of eggs that successfully hatched and fledged in 2022 exceeded the recovery threshold of 1.5 chicks per nest and an increase from 2021 when 1.28 chicks fledged per nest. While we have seen local success here on Cape Cod and elsewhere in New England the productivity numbers are not consistent across the Atlantic Coast breeding range where productivity often falls short of the target goal.

Least Tern

Least terns are colonial nesters, meaning they build their nests together in large groups on the beach. They are also relatively long-lived, meaning the effect of poor productivity on population status is delayed. Thus, annual reproductive success (i.e. the number of least terns that fledge each year) is as critical an indicator of least tern’s population stability as annual numbers of individuals counted. Least tern breeding pairs were down in 2022 with approximately 195 pairs observed in 16 different nest colonies at 12 park beaches (compared to approximately 270 pairs at 17 different nest colonies in 2021). The number of pairs from 2021 were the most observed since 2004. The number of chicks fledged in 2022 increased to 49 compared to only 24 chicks fledged in 2021. This year equates to an average productivity of only 0.25 chicks per pair. Decline in productivity continues to be a concern.

Common Tern

Common terns nest in Massachusetts with the largest populations occuring on Cape Cod and in Buzzards Bay. They arrive in April and May to begin breeding. They depart from their breeding colonies in July and August where they will begin concentrating in "staging areas" around Cape Cod to feed before beginning their southward migratory journeys. In 2022, there was one common tern nest at Jeremy Point that hatched 2 chicks, but they were lost soon after hatching. This is the first-time common terns have been confirmed nesting on park beaches since 2011.

American Oystercatcher

American oystercatchers are a long-lived species that benefits from high annual adult survival and annual productivity. American oystercatchers were first recorded nesting on seashore beaches in 2002. Since then, 1-5 pairs have nested in the southern beaches each year. Between 2010-2022, productivity fluctuated from zero to 1.5 chicks fledged per breeding pair. In 2021, two chicks were fledged, resulting in a productivity number of 1.00 chicks fledged per breeding pair. In 2022, at Jeremy Point three pairs laid six nest attempts. One nest successfully hatched chicks but they were lost soon after. Jeremy Point is a highly dynamic environment with regular over wash events throughout the breeding season due to the low-lying nature of the sand spit it consists of. There is also very little cover in the area, therefore eggs and chicks can become an easy target for predators like coyotes and crows. Fortunately, American oystercatchers are long lived species and can sustain their population numbers with generally low productivity with occasional high productivity once every 7 to 10 years. 

The recovery of a species is accomplished by eliminating, reducing, or mitigating those factors that have caused its decline. In the case of piping plovers and other shorebird species, these impacts and pressures include increased predation (mostly by coyotes and crows), habitat loss, and human disturbance. Climate change, sea-level rise, and increased storm frequency and intensity are also changing the beach ecosystem and have left humans and wildlife sharing a shrinking coastline.

Natural Resource and Science staff and interns are out on the beaches every day collecting data on birds and nests, breeding behaviors, egg counts, chick movement, hatching and fledging successes and failures, predation. They also work with law enforcement rangers to set up, maintain, and move fencing, signs, and exclosures to protect birds and to provide visitors with beach. Fencing and signage may be moved often to allow additional access if birds are no longer in the immediate area. Shorebird staff will talk with visitors and park staff (including lifeguards and fee collectors) to answer questions about shorebirds, nest sites, and closures or other restrictions. With over 40 miles of beach to patrol from Wood End/ Long Point in Provincetown to Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, their focus is on the birds.

Beachgoers are important partners in our conservation effort. The fencing, which utilizes wooden posts and string, and signs help to inform beachgoers about which areas to avoid due to nesting birds. The five-foot-high wire exclosures that surround individual nests reinforce that important message. Exclosures also help protect the nests from pets and from predators like coyotes and crows. The exclosures are effective. In 2021, 85% of piping plover nests not surrounded by exclosures were taken by predators (mostly crows). Of the exclosed nests that were lost, most losses were due to impacts from overwash events, where tides inundate the nests.

Beachgoers should avoid entering the fencing as their presence can disturb the birds and potentially lead to reduced productivity. Beachgoers should also refrain from using the fencing to hang or deposit anything on. Damage or breaking of the string could lead to wildlife entanglements.

Under the Shorebird Management Plan, shorebird populations will be managed with the goal of improving productivity to meet recovery goals, while balancing increased protection efforts with the need to maintain access. The specific elements of the Shorebird Management Plan and Biological Opinion are:

Symbolic Fencing (wooden posts and string)

Lifeguarded Beaches:
Fencing is installed to protect breeding territories, nests, and nesting colonies from disturbance. Symbolic fencing may be reduced or not installed around suitable piping plover habitat on portions of all six lifeguarded beaches. The beaches include Coast Guard Beach (Eastham), Nauset Light Beach, Marconi Beach, Head of the Meadow, Race Point and Herring Cove. The seashore may also reduce symbolic fencing buffers around scrapes and nests to allow for more area on lifeguarded beaches for visitors.

ORV Corridor, ORV access points and the Pole Line and Inner Dune Routes:
Symbolic fencing may be reduced for plovers that are establishing breeding territories and buffers around scrapes and nests may be reduced for traveling vehicles.

Flexible Management

Flexible management is a tool the park may use to reduce or eliminate protective measures like symbolic fencing around piping plover nests, in specific high- visitation areas to support and maintain visitor access. The park can use flexible management for up to five (5) pairs of birds each season. The use of flexible management is at the discretion of park management at all these high use areas:

  • The six lifeguarded beaches and their main pedestrian paths: The park has the option to reduce protective measures like fencing buffers around nests or territories to increase the area of lifeguarded beach available to visitors.

  • The ORV corridor including access points, the Pole Line Rd and Inner Dune Route: For example, if piping plovers nest off Pole Line Road, including the cobble field, and flexible management is implemented, the road would remain open as a 5-mph drive-through section with no pedestrian access until hatching. Only after the eggs hatch would the road be closed. Flexible management cannot be used around unfledged chicks.

  • Parking lots: Parking lots may have to close temporarily if piping plover chicks enter the lots, but park staff can work to clear the brood from the lot so the lot can reopen to vehicles. This is the ONLY time when the park can manage piping plover chicks.

  • A primary goal in the management of threatened or endangered species is to minimize the occurrence of “take”. From Section 3(18) of the Federal Endangered Species Act, the term ‘take’ means “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to engage in any such conduct.”

  • Harm may include significant habitat modification where it kills or injures a listed species through impairment of essential behavior (e.g., nesting or reproduction). Any time flexible management is implemented, it will be considered “take” under the new Biological Opinion and Shorebird Management Plan.

Under the current Biological Opinion provided by USFWS, Cape Cod National Seashore can flexibly manage or “take” up to five (5) pairs of piping plovers. Any pair subjected to flexible management or “take” is estimated to suffer from a 50% reduction in productivity.

Closures and use restrictions (pedestrian, pets, boats) have been implemented to provide enhanced protection for courting, scraping, nesting activities, and for staging and migratory shorebirds. This has resulted in substantial pet closures/restrictions throughout the park starting April 1. Leashed pets will be allowed in areas where no birds are present. Except for specific areas with annual seasonal closures, these areas will be opened and closed often to protect birds and allow for visitor access when possible. Visitors, particularly those accessing the ORV Corridor, should be aware that pet restrictions have increased and should plan carefully before arriving with pets.

Pedestrian Restrictions

“Area Closed” signs are installed throughout the marsh at Hatches Harbor spit and Herring Cove (to the right of the parking lots when facing the ocean) closing the areas to pedestrian access from July through October 15 to protect staging/migrating shorebirds.

Pet Restrictions

Shorebirds are especially sensitive to the presence of dogs as they closely resemble one of their primary predators, the coyote. They are more readily disturbed when a dog is approaching than when only people are approaching. This instinctive reaction causes the birds to leave their nest, interrupting incubation and exposing eggs to either extreme hot or cold temperatures. Research has determined that just the presence of pets disturbs piping plovers far more than people alone. Even when they are on leashes, dogs can frighten, harm, or even kill birds.Accordingly, the following areas will be closed to pets from April 1 through October 15:

    • Coast Guard Beach (to the right of pedestrian access)

    • Nauset Marsh in Eastham

    • Jeremy Point

    • Hatches Harbor (marsh and spit)

    • Herring Cove (northwest - to the right of the parking lots when looking at the water) in Provincetown.

Additional pet restrictions are implemented during the breeding season to protect nesting birds.

Boat Restrictions

A portion of the tip of Coast Guard Spit in Eastham will remain open for boat landings, unless future information indicates that a total closure is warranted.

Boat closures will be established once staging and migratory shorebird species begin to arrive on beaches. Historically important staging and feeding areas (portions of Coast Guard Spit, Eastham, channels in Nauset, Jeremy Point, tidal flats along the east side of Hatches Harbor and the northeast corner of Herring Cove) will be closed to motorized and non-motorized boats from July 15 through October 15. Signs will be installed indicating closures.

Additional areas may be restricted to pedestrians, pets, and boats based on the presence of shorebirds. Dates may be adjusted based on the arrival and departure of birds each year. Beaches that do not have nesting shorebirds or concentrations of staging/migratory shorebirds may remain open to leashed pets.

Predator Control

Non-lethal management methods, including predator exclosures, trash management, and education will continue to be used. Data on predator presence and abundance is being gathered each season. Lethal measures are not being implemented at this time.

When beaches are closed to pets where can I walk my dog?

Visitors are welcome to walk their dog on park beaches (outside of the lifeguarded protected beach) when shorebirds are not breeding in the area. If shorebirds are present, pet closure signs will be installed, and the park website updated to reflect the closed areas.

Pets are allowed on the Doane Trail in Eastham, the Pilgrim Spring Trail in Truro, and on park fire roads. As always, dogs must be leashed. Learn more about pets in the park through our new B.A.R.K. Ranger program. Visit for more information.

Some shorebird species -- like the endangered roseate terns -- may not use Cape Cod National Seashore beaches for breeding but stop here in the fall during their migration to wintering grounds in the Southern Caribbean and South America. The time they spend on seashore beaches is critically important to their survival because they must forage and build up energy reserves for long flights (thousands of miles in some cases). Recreational activities, pets, vehicles, and other disturbances that cause stress, reduce foraging activity, or unnecessary escape flights reduce their energy stores.

The shorebird team constantly adjusts fencing and signage throughout the seashore based on the movement of shorebirds to protect birds and to allow for the greatest visitor access. The latest information is provided weekly to staff at visitor centers and fee booths. Check for updated information posted on the Cape Cod National Seashore webpage, at visitor centers, and at beaches.

Kites and other aerial objects, which can resemble predatory birds, can disrupt and cause stress to breeding birds and chicks. The seashore has designated an area of the outer beach for use by kitesurfers. This area of the outer beach between Nauset Light Beach and Coastguard Beach has little shorebird activity. Kite flying is prohibited at certain beaches.

You should leave all shorebirds alone, even if they appear to be injured. Shorebirds are wild animals and respond poorly to direct human contact. This often results in further injuring the shorebird.

For the birds to thrive, reducing predation risk is just as important as reducing disturbance by human activities. The Shorebird Management Plan and its associated Environmental Assessment includes both non-lethal and lethal methods. The seashore relies on non-lethal methods like managing food waste, communicating with the public about not attracting predators and about keeping pets on leashes, and installing exclosures without nests so predators learn not to associate them with prey. The park is not currently implementing lethal methods.

Lethal methods in the future will be used only on targeted individual animals known to pose threats to nesting birds and eggs. Approved methods are outlined in the Environmental Assessment and will only be employed in coordination with professionals from the United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, Wildlife Service division.

Last updated: January 8, 2024

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