Northeast Coastal Areas Study
Significant Coastal Habitats

Site 40 (MA)


I. SITE NAME: Martha's Vineyard Coastal Sandplain and Beach Complex

II. LOCATION: This extensive complex of glacial outwash sandplains and coastal beaches encompasses a large interior section of southcentral Martha's Vineyard, an area known as the Great Plains, and beaches along the southern and eastern shorelines of the island. Martha's Vineyard is southern New England's largest island and is located south of Falmouth, Cape Cod.

TOWNS: Gay Head, Chilmark, Edgartown, West Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, Chappaquiddick Island
STATE: Massachusetts
USGS 7.5 MIN QUADS: Tisbury Great Pond, Mass 41070-36; Squibnocket, Mass 41070-37; Edgartown, Mass 41070-45; Vineyard Haven, Mass 41070-46; Naushon Island, Mass 41070-47
USGS 30x60 MIN QUAD: Martha's Vineyard 41070-A1

III. GENERAL BOUNDARY: The island of Martha's Vineyard is bounded on the northwest by Vineyard Sound, on the northeast by Nantucket Sound, on the east by Muskeget Channel and on the south and southeast by the Atlantic Ocean. The sandplains area comprising this complex is a triangular-shaped glacial outwash plain whose southern base extends from Chilmark Pond on the west to the eastern shores of Edgartown Great Pond, an east-west distance of approximately 9 miles (14 km). The northern apex of the plains extends inland from the coast about 6 miles (10 km) to a point about 2 miles (3 km) northeast of the village of North Tisbury. The coastal beaches extend southeastward from Long Beach, between Gay Head and Squibnocket Point on the southwestern end of the island eastward along the entire southern shoreline of the island to Wasque Point, and from there north to Cape Poge and curving westward around the Cape Poge Elbow. Included within this complex are the several large ponds along the southern and southwestern shores, such as Squibnocket Pond, Chilmark Pond, Black Point Pond, Tisbury Great Pond, Oyster Pond, Paqua Pond, and Edgartown Great Pond. The complex also includes Nomans Land Island, a small island (approximately 1 square mile) 3 miles (5 km) off the southwest corner (Squibnocket Point) of Martha's Vineyard. The general boundary of the complex as well as the individual sites needing protection are delineated on the accompanying maps.

IV. OWNERSHIP/PROTECTED STATUS: The ownership of the area is exceedingly mixed, and includes many privately-owned parcels, local Land Trusts, Massachusetts Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy preserves, and various municipal, State and Federal government-owned lands. About 20% of the island of Martha's Vineyard is preserved in some way, of which nearly half of these preserved lands is in public ownership. The sandplains area includes all of Martha's Vineyard State Forest, about 4,000 acres (1,620 ha). Most of this sandplains area, however, is privately-owned. Nomans Land Island is owned by the U.S. Military (Navy) and jointly managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

V. GENERAL HABITAT DESCRIPTION: The two major components of this complex are the sandplains and the coastal beaches. The sandplains are comprised of fire-adapted grassland, heathland and woodland communities. Sandplain grasslands are regionally and globally restricted maritime grassland communities characteristically dominated by little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica), often with wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), toothed white-topped aster (Sericocarpus asteroides) and goat's rue (Tephrosia virginiana). Heathlands are low, shrubby plant communities dominated by ericaceous shrubs, particularly low-bush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), staggerbush (Lyonia mariana), wild rose (Rosa virginiana) and bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica). Pitch pine (Pinus rigida) and scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia) barrens occur over the nutrient-poor soils of the sandplains. These woodlands have a very open canopy and a dense ericaceous shrub understory. Oak savannas are another common community type of the sandplains and are dominated by white (Quercus alba), black (Q. velutina), post (Q. stellata) and scarlet oaks (Q. coccinea), often mixed with pitch pine on drier sites and with black cherry (Prunus serotina), red maple (Acer rubrum) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum) on moister sites. Well-developed shrub and herbaceous layers are often present and include black huckleberry, highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), bayberry, bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum). Coastal beaches in this area consist of unvegetated beach face and berm, sparsely vegetated foredunes dominated by American beach grass (Ammophila breviligulata) and seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) and more stabilized and densely vegetated inner dunes with bayberry, saltspray rose (Rosa rugosa), poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and winged sumac (Rhus copallina). Nomans Land Island is characterized by wavecut bluffs reaching 50 feet (15 m) in height and narrow beaches of coarse gravel, cobbles and boulders. The island surface is mostly glacial moraine similar to that on Squibnocket Point. Vegetation types are diverse and dense. Dominant upland vegetation is poison ivy, rose (Rosa spp.), bayberry, greenbrier (Smilax spp.) and arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum). Sand dunes are similar to those on Martha's Vineyard and are dominated by beach grass, seaside goldenrod and beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus).

VI. SIGNIFICANCE/UNIQUENESS OF AREA: The sandplains of Martha's Vineyard have the dubious distinction of being the final home and last known occurrence of the now-extinct Heath-hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido), of which the last individual, a male, was seen on March 11, 1932. This species and its extinction from overhunting, changing habitat, predation by feral house cats and fire dramatizes the uniqueness and regional importance of this area, its present value to a number of regionally rare species and communities and the threats which it faces. The sandplain grasslands and coastal heathlands are regionally restricted habitats that have developed on the outwash plains at the edge of the glacial moraine that extends along the northeastern U.S. coast from Long Island to Cape Cod. These areas are remarkable not only for their unique, fire-adapted plant communities and their well-developed condition and relative extensiveness on Martha's Vineyard, but also for providing essential habitat for such rare species of special emphasis in the region as bushy rockrose (Helianthemum dumosum), Nantucket shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis), New England blazing-star (Liatris borealis) and regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia), all candidate species for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Savannah and grasshopper sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus and A. savannarum) are characteristic nesting sparrows of the grassland sandplains, while nesting osprey (Pandion haliaetus) are becoming increasingly common on the island (greater than 75 pairs), and northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) nest in several areas. Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) was once a common breeding bird in the sandplain grasslands and low heaths, but none has been reported nesting in recent years, even though potential habitat appears abundant. The pine barrens have a rich lepidopteran community, including such rare species as the barrens buckmoth (Hemileuca maia), a candidate species. Barn owls (Tyto alba) nest locally on the island.

The long stretch of nearly continuous sand beaches around the periphery of Martha's Vineyard, particularly from the vicinity of Cape Poge at the northeastern end of Chappaquiddick Island south and westward along the Atlantic Ocean shoreline to Squibnocket Point and Long Beach at the southwestern end of the island, is potentially perhaps the most important beach-nesting area for piping plovers (Charadrius melodus), a U.S. Threatened species,and least tern (Sterna antillarum) in the study region. A few small isolated beaches and islands in this area also provide essential nesting habitat for common tern (S. hirundo) and roseate tern (S. dougallii), a U.S. Endangered species, which also nested on Nomans Land Island, and American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus). In recent years, many of the tern and piping plover nesting areas have been abandoned, likely the result of predation and/or human disturbances during the nesting season. The only New England population of northeastern beach tiger beetle (Cincindela d. dorsalis), a U.S. Threatened species, occurs on one small section of beach in this complex. Sea-beach knotweed (Polygonum glaucum) and sea-beach pigweed (Amaranthus pumilis), both regionally rare plant species, grow on several of the beaches in this area. Gray seals (Halichoerus grypus) frequently haulout on these beaches in winter and spring. At one time, the beaches of Nomans Land Island supported a major common and roseate tern nesting colony that contained more birds than nested on all of Martha's Vineyard, primarily because of the absence of any mammalian predators on Nomans Land. Now, however, nesting terns have been displaced by gulls. There is still a colony of black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) and snowy egret (Egretta thula) on Nomans Land island, which fly over to Martha's Vineyard to feed.

The large ponds and embayments behind (landward of) the south-facing barrier beaches fronting the Atlantic Ocean, including Great Tisbury Pond, Edgartown Great Pond and Katama Bay, are important wintering waterfowl concentration areas, particularly for American black duck (Anas rubripes), lesser scaup (Aythya affinis), Atlantic brant (Branta bernicla), Canada goose (Branta canadensis) and red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator). Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), a U.S. Endangered species, occasionally overwinter in these areas. Commercially and recreationally important shellfish beds of American oyster (Crassostrea virginica), hard-shelled clam (Mercenaria mercenaria) and bay scallop (Aequipecten irradians) occur in these ponds and bays. The mudflats along their shores are often visited by large numbers of migrating shorebirds, including dunlin (Calidris alpina), black-bellied plover (Pluvialis squatarola), ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres) and semi-palmated plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus). Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus), a U.S. Endangered species, are common during fall and spring migrations. The nearshore Atlantic Ocean waters are important sea duck wintering areas, especially for common eider (Somateria mollissima) and scoters (Melanitta spp.). These same waters are rich in bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix), winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus), striped bass (Morone saxatilis), Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) and Atlantic bonito (Sarda sarda).

VII. THREATS: The islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, as on Cape Cod, are becoming increasingly crowded with both new residents and tourists, creating a corresponding need for more housing and facilities. With this population increase comes an evergrowing demand for greater public access to existing natural areas, open spaces and beaches in pursuit of both traditional and emerging new forms of recreational activities, many of which are incompatible with the long-term survival of certain native species of wildlife, fish and plants. Clearly, the direct loss or degradation of essential beach and sandplain habitat to housing or facility development has the greatest and most immediate impact on those species and communities dependent on such areas for one or more of their life history stages, seasonal use requirements or survival. Indeed, several species have declined, ceased to breed or have been extirpated from the island as a likely result of direct habitat loss, and several others are similarly threatened. Conversion of habitat types poses a similar threat to several species and communities on the sandplains, including the direct replacement of native vegetation with planted pines and the loss of unique grassland and heath sandplain communities and their dependent species through fire suppression practices which have in turn resulted in vegetational succession to shrubland and woodland communities. In addition to habitat losses, direct impacts have occurred on rare sandplain insect species from aerial pesticide application, particularly for gypsy moth.

The beaches of Martha's Vineyard, most of which are privately-owned but also some stretches of State and County lands, are subject to enormous recreational pressures both from pedestrians and off-road vehicles. While heaviest use is during the summer months, there is considerable "off-season" vehicular use of the beaches by fishermen and other recreationalists. This off-season beach traffic, particularly during times of the year when the beaches are at their narrowest from winter storms, frequently results in people driving on the toes of the dunes, which almost certainly contributes to an increased dune and foredune erosion rate and a corresponding loss of essential beach nesting habitat for certain species such as piping plover. Far more serious, however, is the direct impact of human-related disturbances on colonial beach-nesting birds during the critical nesting season. Such disturbances include beach-walking, sun-bathing, picnicking, boat landings, vehicular traffic, raking and grooming of the upper beach wrackline (an important food source for piping plovers) and unleashed pets within nesting areas. Nesting colonies of piping plovers and terns are extremely sensitive and vulnerable to disturbances and intrusions of these sorts and will frequently abandon a site either seasonally or permanently as a result. There has also been a growing problem and concern with predation on nesting birds by skunk (Mephitis mephitis), which were reintroduced to the island in recent times, raccoon (Procyon lotor) and feral cats. Predation is potentially the greatest threat to ground-nesting birds of all kinds on the island, including short-eared owl and harrier. The gull population on Nomans Land Island essentially precludes the likelihood of any recolonization by common or roseate terns.

VIII. CONSERVATION CONSIDERATIONS: Special efforts need to be focused on the restoration, maintenance and protection of the full mosaic of fire-adapted plant communities of the sandplains, particularly the early successional grassland and heathland types and the number of regionally rare and restricted species dependent upon them. Studies should be continued on identifying the quality, quantity and proportion in the landscape of the different habitat types required to maintain at least minimum viable populations of rare species of birds, plants and invertebrates and the fire cycles and techniques necessary to maintain these habitats on both Martha's Vineyard and Nomans Land Island.

It is vitally important that nesting beaches of piping plovers and terns on Martha's Vineyard be protected from human-related disturbances during the critical nesting season (mid-April to August) using all available means to exclude people, vehicles and stray animals from these areas. Fenced exclosures, beach closures, posting, animal traps, beach warden patrols and public education should all be considered and implemented as part of an overall protection strategy for the island's valuable nesting beaches. Given the extent of private ownership of beaches, the implementation of restrictive protection strategies and practices, particularly on such heavily used recreational beaches as these, is simply not possible or likely without extensive cooperative outreach efforts involving private landowners, local, State, County and Federal government agencies, and private conservation groups active in the area. There is an excellent opportunity here to develop cooperative management and conservation agreements and programs among these various entities to best manage and protect for the long term the wealth of living resources occupying these areas while at the same time seeking to provide for continuing and compatible human use and enjoyment of the same landscape. Efforts should be made to identify and implement tasks and objectives of the piping plover and roseate tern recovery plans that may be applicable to the beaches of Martha's Vineyard and Nomans Land Island, including opportunities to restore and enhance degraded beach habitat.

The mammalian predator situation on Martha's Vineyard is of such magnitude and seriousness, particularly impacts on colonial nesting U.S. and State-listed Endangered and Threatened bird species, that investigations should be conducted as soon as possible to assess the population status and distribution of skunks, raccoons and feral cats on the island and to formulate and implement a predator removal program. The Animal Damage Control Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture should be consulted to carry out such an assessment. The gull situation, particularly on Nomans Land Island, should also be investigated and control measures considered. Cooperation between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Navy regarding Nomans Land Island should be continued and preferably enhanced, with greater opportunity provided for biologists to survey and assess the living resources of the island and to undertake intensive vegetation management programs to both improve wildlife habitat and restore coastal sandplain grassland communities. Should this island ever be declared excess or surplus by the Navy, the Fish and Wildlife Service should give strong consideration to taking over its total management.


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