By Scott Lajoie | Photography by Jay Elliott

When I was younger, my grandmother spoke of two magical islands to which she occasionally traveled to watch winged creatures soar: Monhegan, where the black cliffs teemed with colorful puffins, and Monomoy, a haven for migrating shorebirds of all walks. Because I didn’t know any better, I always assumed that both of these destinations were foreign lands, and I listened enthralled as she spoke of these special jaunts with her birding group.

The stories heightened my expectations. When I finally went for my first time to Monomoy (my grandmother was ill and unfortunately couldn’t join me), I must admit that I was a little disappointed. The journey there was hardly difficult. And I felt like there wasn’t much to see, that perhaps my grandmother’s fantastic stories were of a time long since past. After all, with depleting bird populations all throughout the Western hemisphere, the hobby of birding may be lost on people of my instant-gratification generation.

While a handful of recreational fly fisherman set off for a rip at the northernmost point of the island, upon landfall I took off for a quick loop around the perimeter. Since the scores of birds I expected were only a few (migration procrastinators, no doubt), I found myself instead appreciating the calm and looking for beauty in the landscape. The tidal flats seemed to go on forever, and the ankle-high water through which I trudged created chaotic patterns in the sand. Although the birds were not in such abundance, it made me appreciate how the ones that were there interacted with the environment.
When coming down the western side of the island, I caught a glimpse of a figure in the distance. Making his way through the knee-high sea grass was Blair Nikula, one of the foremost birders on the Cape, with a tripod and scope slung over his shoulder. He had come that morning on board his own boat, and explained to me that he was doing one of the many bird counts he does voluntarily for Manomet Observatory’s International Shorebird Surveys.

It’s a small community. My grandmother had a particular interest in Monomoy, because as the first female cartographer for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, she drew maps for 20 years charting the huge changes that the land mass has experienced. But because most of her work was done in an office, she made a point to sink her feet in the mud once a year with her local bird club. Audubon tour guide Bob Prescott (now the local sanctuary’s director) and many of her fellow birders had no idea she was responsible for the numerous maps of the area, and she liked it that way.

Colloquially we all refer to Monomoy as an island, but as of this past Thanksgiving, we can no longer do so. For years the channel separating South Beach and the northern tip of South Monomoy Island had been slowly accreting sand, while North Monomoy Island shores eroded and that land mass shrunk in size. Finally, with a final surge of sand from a storm, South Monomoy has attached itself to the mainland. Coastal geologists talk of seeking “equilibrium,” but it’s clear they have no way to gauge what will happen next.

We had traveled to North Monomoy on the final day of the season that the commercial tour groups run. It was a brisk Columbus Day, and the boat over was populated by the recreational fisherman and a jazz singer from Cambridge, seeking some spiritual inspiration of some sort. On our way back, our captain took us for a little detour to see the seals frolicking in the water in the protected waters off South Beach. As we tooled around the channel that we’d be the last set of tourists to look out over that channel. A month and a half later, it would be gone.

It seemed like a milestone, but in the life of this geological phenomenon, it was merely one step in its fascinating evolution. To Mother Nature that day, we were just passing through quietly as she did her work.

Editor Scott Lajoie will no doubt travel to Monomoy once again, this time with a special guide, his grandmother Sue.