Chappy beach closures to protect shore birds include wiggle room

Common terns are often found on Norton Point beach. — Photo courtesy of TTOR

In what has become an annual rite of summer, The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) have begun closing off access for over-sand vehicles (OSV) to sections of Chappaquiddick beach to protect newly hatched least tern and piping plover chicks.

If the chicks survive a natural gauntlet that includes predation by crows, gulls, skunks, and weather, they should be able to fly in about six weeks and the beach closures will end.

Closures at the height of the busy summer season are forced by the need to comply with state and federal laws designed to protect several bird species. However, one change from recent years is a new degree of flexibility on the part of state and federal wildlife officials that could allow Cape Poge Wildlife Preserve to remain open to OSVs.

TTOR owns or manages approximately 15 miles of over-sand vehicle trails accessible with a permit. From Katama to Cape Poge gut at the end of Chappaquiddick, vehicle beach trails give residents and visitors access to uncrowded fishing, clamming, and picnicking spots, and a beach experience that is unique to the Vineyard.

State guidelines say that when chicks are on a barrier beach, managers have to draw a line through where the chicks are located and close shoreline to shoreline, and provide a buffer 100 yards up and down the beach. No vehicles are allowed near that zone, which moves with the chicks.

The presence of a physical barrier, for example a steep dune face or heavy vegetation, or a determination that there is a lack of foraging habitat on one shoreline, are the only mitigating factors in the application of that blanket rule. In those situations, TTOR may be allowed to detour vehicles where alternate shoreline trails exist.

Those determinations have significant implications for TTOR, and beach-goers who enjoy Chappy properties, and generate the sticker income that helps support the private conservation trust.

Off-road vehicle users currently can only access East Beach and Leland Beach at the Dike Bridge. Once across they may turn right and use an inner or outer trail traveling south along Leland Beach to reach Wasque Point, a popular fishing spot. Or they may turn left and travel north along a single trail that runs parallel to East Beach and connects to an inner and outer trail leading to the 516-acre Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge.

In 2011, Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife zoologist Scott Melvin made a new determination that the existing dunes and grass north of Dike Bridge did not provide a sufficient physical barrier between the sole Cape Poge vehicle access trail and East Beach nesting sites. That determination created a choke point in the TTOR trail system. When chicks were present on East Beach north of Dike Bridge the shoreline to shoreline rule was enforced and access to Cape Poge was lost.

Recently, Mr. Melvin reviewed a draft TTOR conservation plan for the management of endangered shorebirds on Chappaquiddick. Although the draft plan is still under review by Mass Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mr. Melvin suggested a review of the bayside conditions in the potential “choke points” adjacent to the Dike Bridge on Chappy, according to TTOR.

“Under this new determination, Dr. Melvin and the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Biologist Susi von Oettingen have agreed to exclude up to 5,000 feet of the Leland Beach bayside trail and approximately half of the bayside trail north of the Dike Bridge from consideration as suitable foraging habitat for adults and chicks due to the presence of large amounts of salt marsh or other impassable terrain,” TTOR said in a press release dated June 7.

“This is a huge step forward for us,” Chris Kennedy, TTOR Martha’s Vineyard superintendent said in a telephone conversation Friday. “And a tip of the hat to state and federal wildlife. If they hadn’t come down with that determination, frankly, all of Leland Beach would be closed right now and we would be looking at a complete closure of Cape Poge Wildllife Refuge, probably in the next week of so. I have to give credit to Scott Melvin. He has taken a lot of heat for guidelines over the years, but he and Susi von Oettingen, his counterpart on the federal level, have bent over backwards to work with the Trustees to make that determination that allows us to detour traffic around those shorebird chicks.”

Mr. Kennedy was quick to point out that the new guidelines have limited effect. They only apply to that specific area.

For example, if chicks are present on Norton Point Beach, the barrier that separates the Atlantic from Katama Bay, the shoreline to shoreline closure will be required.

New rules will also limit the ability of beach-goers to bring their dogs to the beach on a leash or in a vehicle.

The Trustees have seasonally prohibited dogs on certain beaches that include the Gut, portions of Norton Point Beach where shorebirds are nesting, and all of Leland Beach. Dogs are not allowed on leash or in vehicles in these areas from May 1 until mid-August or until such time as all nesting and migrating shorebirds have left the beaches, TTOR said in a press release.

Mr. Kennedy said the flexibility on the part of state and federal wildlife officials is encouraging and likely a result of strong efforts to protect shorebirds and the resulting increase in numbers.

Irrespective, Mr. Kennedy said, “The responsibility lies with The Trustees to protect these birds.”

As of Monday, Mr. Kennedy reported two groups of plover chicks at the Gut, one unhatched plover nest at the Cape Poge “elbow,” two nests and one group of plover chicks on East Beach north of the Dike Bridge, two plover nests on Leland Beach and one plover nest and two groups of plover chicks on Norton Point beach.

“As of today we have a small OSV closure at the Gut and approximately 1 mile of Norton Point beach closed to vehicles on the eastern end of Norton Point beach,” he said. “Finally, we estimate we have approximately 300 Common tern nests at Norton Point beach.”

He added, “All of this can change in a heartbeat.”

For more information or current beach closures, call 508-627-8390 or